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AT&T has clarified that its bad policy of restricting video chat apps is still in place. We've also found out that handset providers need to jump through hoops to avoid being blocked. But AT&T has promised to end these practices by the end of the year.
When I wrote about AT&T's blocking of Google Hangouts over cellular last week I admit I was confused. I didn't understand why AT&T would allow Hangouts on iOS but not Android. It really looked like some kind of oversight, because the Android app, just like the iOS app, was installed from an app store and not "pre-loaded," which is a distinction AT&T has made before. I also wondered if app developers had to somehow work some special magic to make their apps work on AT&T's network.
But, yesterday AT&T put out a statement that clarifies some things while confusing others. First, it really does appear that AT&T defines Hangouts for Android as "pre-loaded." Even though it hasn't actually been pre-loaded on any phones yet, an app by the OS developer appears to count.
Second, it also appears that handset manufacturers, not app developers per se, are the ones who have to call an AT&T hotline to figure out how to make "pre-loaded" apps work. AT&T points out that BlackBerry, Apple, and Samsung have done this. But since none of these companies developed Hangouts it's not surprising that none of them have done whatever it takes to make it work. Presumably Google's subsidiary Motorola could have called up AT&T and figured this out, but this wouldn't have been much help to users with other handsets (by HTC, LG, Pantech, etc).
All this is unfortunate. Video chat apps are being arbitrarily blocked and the only way to make them work is through some cumbersome process that hinges on confusing distinctions between pre-loaded and "downloaded" and the handset provider and the app developer. In addition to being 1) The Law, 2) Good for Consumers, and 3) Good for Innovation, the Open Internet is also good for your sanity. Every attempt we've seen by AT&T and others to restrict what subscribers can do with their connections or to come up with new monetization schemes has been defined by complicatedness and ambiguity. This should not be the mobile future.
But there's sort-of good news. Somewhat in keeping with what AT&T said when PK and others agreed not to file an Open Internet complaint over its blocking of FaceTime last year, AT&T has re-iterated that Real Soon Now, it's not going to distinguish between price plans or category of app. Data caps might still be in place—and that's another issue—but what customers do with their data is up to them. That's good news. It's also the minimum that users should expect.
Image by Flickr user gfpeck.