Is the time right for FaceTime over 3G?

The Verizon version of the iPhone 4—due to arrive early next month—will include a personal hotspot feature that will let users share their phone’s 3G connection with up to five other devices. Pending carrier approval, the hotspot feature could eventually make its way into every device—possibly as soon as the now-in-beta iOS 4.3 update arrives. And not surprisingly, that’s generated a lot of positive buzz: users see the hotspot capability as a way to both reduce the number of devices they need to carry around and lower their cellular bills by sharing a single connection among multiple devices.

The introduction of this new capability, however, does raise a few interesting questions about FaceTime, another technology that Apple has touted as revolutionary despite the fact that it is severely limited by its reliance on Wi-Fi connectivity.

Why no FaceTime on 3G?

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs previewed FaceTime last year, he mentioned that the video-calling system would only work across a Wi-Fi connection, presumably due to the limited reliability of cellular networks, or perhaps because wireless operators were reluctant to embrace a technology that could possibly eat into their core revenue stream. (FaceTime calls, after all, are not billed as airtime.)

It’s difficult to say whether the situation has changed enough in the intervening six months to warrant a reversal of this policy. But there are a few indications that things are, at least, moving in the right direction. First, AT&T has invested heavily in its network, particularly in areas where the coverage suffers from a combination of regulatory hurdles and unfavourable topography, like New York City and San Francisco.

What’s more, even though the iPhone 4 won’t use Verizon’s faster LTE network, the company is similarly positioned, with good coverage and plenty of time to upgrade their network since it started working with Apple on a CDMA version of the device.

Crucially, AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans in 2010, and has been allowing VoIP apps to operate for both audio and video calls over 3G for some time. This means that the company now has an incentive to allow FaceTime over its network, since it will cause users to consume more data and, presumably, pay higher monthly premiums. (Verizon has not yet announced its pricing plans for the iPhone.)

AT&T has also lifted many limitations on what it does and doesn’t allow on its network. Take Skype, the voice-over-IP app that was restricted to making calls over Wi-Fi when it first debuted on the iOS platform. That changed in 2009, when AT&T agreed to let VoIP apps place calls on its 3G network. These days, you can even make a video call over 3G using Skype.

Will FaceTime work on 3G?

Users of jailbroken iPhone 4 devices have already been able to use FaceTime over a 3G connection for some time, thanks to a little utility that tricks the phone into thinking that it is connected to a Wi-Fi network at all times.

And given the increasing availability of personal hotspots, the line between Wi-Fi connectivity and 3G data gets increasingly blurred. Since there is no practical qualitative difference between a “traditional” Wi-Fi network that is connected to a wired Internet link and one that is created by a mobile hotspot, limiting FaceTime to a local wireless connection will make less and less sense.

If you try to make a FaceTime connection over a Wi-Fi hotspot that's relaying data over a 3G network, it works. The quality of a call depends heavily on the stability of the 3G data link and suffers from the occasional hiccup due to network lag or temporary congestion. However, the same is true of a regular Wi-Fi link: if you’re in the middle of a large download that eats up a considerable amount of your bandwidth, you can safely expect FaceTime performance to be less than stellar.

In short, my empirical experiments show that FaceTime over 3G is an entirely feasible proposition. It uses large amounts of bandwidth—about 3MB per minute—but no more so than, say, streaming video off of a service like Netflix. Of course, in the end, only Apple (and perhaps cell phone operators) will have the final decision on the matter. But it seems that all the necessary pieces may finally be there for iPhone and iPod touch users to view each other even when they’re away from a traditional wireless hotspot.

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