AT&T to Customers: Net Neutrality is Whatever We Say It Is

It appears that, like the pigs in Orwell's "Animal Farm," some AT&T customers are more equal than others.

Today's complaint? AT&T is allowing some of its iPhone-wielding customers to use Apple's FaceTime video chat over its wireless voice network, but not others. Specifically, users of newer shared data plans can FaceTime to their heart and wallet's content via the cellular network, while those on older and cheaper data plans are forced to remain in a Wi-Fi ghetto when FaceTiming with their iPhone and iPad buddies.

[AT&T FaceTime Restriction is Simple Extortion]

AT&T's reason for doing this, of course: To get iPhoners to pony up for the more expensive plan when Apple unveils its newest phone next month (assuming the InterWebs rumor mill has pegged that one right). But in doing that, AT&T is violating the FCC's Net neutrality rules, says consumer watchdog group Public Knowledge, because it is blocking access to an app that competes with its own product offerings.

So far, it sounds like yet another obscure skirmish between the Apple-obsessed -- nothing to see here, please move along. It's AT&T's response to these charges that's getting under people's skin. AT&T Chief Privacy Officer Bob Quinn wrote a blog post claiming the FCC's rules only apply to apps available for download, not those preloaded on the phones (I am not an attorney, but that sounds like a somewhat dubious argument even to me) and that people who are unhappy about that should take a long stroll off a short pier (I'm paraphrasing here).

In a blog post titled "AT&T is angry and not afraid to show it," Mashable's Peter Pachal described Quinn's response as "borderline condescending." But the commenters on Quinn's post were somewhat less kind. Here's a smattering of the nicer ones:

  • "This is the most unprofessional public statement I have ever read."
  • "Thanks for the clarification, Bob. It sounds like we need to redo the Net neutrality requirements to make them truly neutral."
  • "Again, AT&T showing just how little it cares about its customers."
  • "This is total BS. Data is data. When I pay for 3G of data, who cares how I use it? If I go over, that's my problem, but to tell me that I have to switch to a more expensive plan just to use it is wrong."
  • "Dear AT&T: This statement of policy is awesome, fair, and welcome. I don't see what anyone's complaining about. Sincerely, a Verizon customer."

They went on -- 156 comments as I write this, all just like those. The lesson here? Allowing your executives to vent via unvetted blog posts is a bit like putting out a forest fire using Napalm.

Dear AT&T: We know you know that many of your customers hate you. Why else would you consistently land in last place in customer satisfaction surveys year after year? But acting like you don't give a damn whether they hate you isn't a good way to get them to stop. Just sayin'.

In somewhat related news, it seems the Oakland, Calif., Police Department has been having a rash of problems with the radios in its squad cars not working, until someone figured out the cause: AT&T's cell towers were interfering with them. That's the first time I can recall anyone complaining that AT&T's signals were too strong.

(To be fair, I am writing this from a coastal island location that shall not be disclosed lest the black helicopters find me. My T-Mobile data connection is crawling at submodem speeds, while my traveling companion's AT&T connection is humming along at 3G or better. Your wireless mileage may vary.)

AT&T certainly doesn't hold a monopoly on arrogance. To some degree, all companies that reach a certain size seem to develop a bunker mentality where they feel the world either a) doesn't understand them or b) is out to get them. But it really seems like AT&T doesn't much care what its customers think of it. That is an excellent way to find yourself suddenly running short of them. You can only tick people off for so long before they start leaving you when the first viable alternative comes along.

Has AT&T jumped the shark, finally? Leave your thoughts below at the beep, or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "AT&T to customers: Net neutrality is whatever we say it is," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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