AT&T will be slapped with net neutrality complaint over FaceTime blocking

Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute have informed AT&T(s t) that they intend to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against the wireless carrier for violating network neutrality rules. The complaint will address Ma Bell’s plan to keep certain subscribers from using Apple’s(s aapl) FaceTime video calling on the AT&T cellular network. The move was expected, but the timing on when the FCC responds is unclear.

You still get FaceTime, you just can’t use it on certain networks.

In August, AT&T said it would block the video calling feature that will be found in Apple’s iPhone 5 as well as other Apple hardware that updates to iOS 6 unless customers are signed up for one of its new Mobile Shared Data plans. Customers on other plans can use FaceTime via Wi-Fi all they want, but the cellular network will be off limits.

AT&T justified this move in two ways: first it said by being open and transparent about the move it was following the rules that the FCC had implemented with regard to network neutrality on wireless networks. Two, it made a complicated argument around preloaded apps that basically boiled down to, “you can use anything you want on AT&T’s handsets over Wi-Fi, thus we aren’t blocking anything.”

Free Press, which is a network neutrality advocate, isn’t buying it. In release notifying AT&T of its intent to file (an FCC requirement) Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood offers the following quote:

“AT&T’s decision to block FaceTime unless a customer pays for voice and text minutes she doesn’t need is a clear violation of the FCC’s Open Internet rules. It’s particularly outrageous that AT&T is requiring this for iPad users, given that this device isn’t even capable of making voice calls. AT&T’s actions are incredibly harmful to all of its customers, including the deaf, immigrant families and others with relatives overseas, who depend on mobile video apps to communicate with friends and family.”

As I wrote after AT&T said it was not violating the Open Internet rules that forbid a carrier from blocking services that compete with its own services, this move is designed to do two things for AT&T. One, it pushes users to the newer shared data plans that help AT&T offset the loss in revenue from users deciding to dump texting and even voice plans. Two, it seeks to conflate Wi-Fi networks with cellular networks for purposes of abiding by the network neutrality rules.

By making Wi-Fi an equivalent of cellular, AT&T can keep traffic off its cellular network while also limiting where users can use over the top services. And while Wi-Fi networks are common, they aren’t everywhere. Verizon(s vz)(s vod) apparently recognizes this. The nation’s largest wireless carrier has said it will not block FaceTime on any device or on any network. Of course, Verizon does have a rather draconian plan already in place to get users to move over to its shared plans, so there you have it.