When Apple introduced FaceTime on the iPhone 4 nearly two years ago, many users were disappointed to find out that they could only place video calls while connected to Wi-Fi. That was a disappointing fact, but not entirely surprising given the bandwidth that it takes to pull off a high quality video call and Apple’s penchant for making the user experience perfect at all costs.
Guaranteeing a solid experience might have made a good deal of sense when it comes to the iPhone 4, iPad 2, and iPhone 4S – all of them are 3G devices and 3G data performance often falls short of terrestrial broadband and Wi-Fi. But the Wi-Fi only restriction remains in place on the new iPad models with LTE even though LTE performance can approach that of many home broadband options – begging the question: Why is Apple limiting FaceTime on its new LTE devices?
The restriction seems absurd when you consider the fact that you can activate the personal hotspot feature on one of the new LTE iPads, share its connection with another FaceTime-capable device (the new iPad, iPad 2, iPhone 4 and 4S, or the fourth generation iPod touch), and place a FaceTime call from that second device.
If it isn’t data performance that’s the reason that Apple is making Wi-Fi a requirement for FaceTime, then it’s most likely that the company is doing it to stay in the good graces of mobile carriers. A lot of LTE (or even 3G) users placing video calls is going to put extra strain on a carrier’s network.
They would also burn through a lot of data pretty quickly. That sounds like a win for carriers – heavy data use that can easily be translated into more expensive plans or overage charges. But carriers seem to be struggling to find a way to make money off of heavy data users without their use impacting other customers. After all, the more lucrative customers for mobile carriers are the ones who opt for some of the mid-tier plans – plans that they choose because it will help them avoid overages, which is likely with very limited entry-level plans, but also plans where they don’t usually come close to their monthly data allotments.
That’s why carriers might limit FaceTime use, but Apple’s the company building that limit into iOS – what’s their advantage here? Keeping a good relationship with carriers. As we found out when Sprint started selling the iPhone, the subsidy burden on carriers for the iPhone is a bigger than with almost every other device that they sell. And despite the iPhone’s popularity, Apple needs good working relationships with carriers to sell and support the iPhone – as well as the iPad (be it the new iPad with LTE or the iPad 2 with 3G).
Will FaceTime ever be something that’s officially supported over carrier networks? It’s hard to say in the long run, but I don’t think it’s likely in the near future.