When Google announced Android 2.2 one of the major benefits was the ability to use your phone as a gateway through which another device could access the phone’s internet connection. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember with Windows Mobile and various Android devices (before it was built-in to the OS itself).
This is called “tethering” and it can generally be done though the device itself via a USB connection, or by using the device’s WiFi connection to act as a Wireless Access Point or Wireless Router.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that laptop and desktop computers typically use a lot more data than do phones. The amount of data that can occupy the airwaves at any given time is limited by physics — once the air is saturated, you can’t push any more data through without expanding the frequencies used, and/or compressing the data that’s flying through the frequencies being used. And even if the air isn’t saturated, the pipe to the tower might not be big enough to handle the maximum saturation. With me so far?
That’s why carriers are so worried about tethering. Or are they.
Carriers offer USB modems (and associated data plans) to let you connect to their data networks from your laptop so that you can stay connected “while on the go”. Prices vary, but they usually run around US$40-70/month — and you don’t get a voice line with it.
Back to T-Mobile.
T-Mobile hasn’t actively blocked users from using their phone as a modem, but they have prohibited it in their terms and conditions: “Unless explicitly permitted by your Data Plan, other uses, including for example, using your Device as a modem or tethering your Device to a personal computer or other hardware, are not permitted.”
My data plan is denoted as “unlimited”, which to me means “no limits”, which further implies an explicit permission to use that data without limits. Of course a laywer, or T-Mobile rep, might interpret that differently.
When the T-Mobile G2 first came out, the ability to tether had been removed from the device. Many of us, former Nexus One users, complained. T-Mobile subsequently added the ability to tether back into the device with the phone’s latest OTA update.
T-Mobile also announced that they will be offering a tethering add-on to your current plan for $15/month. When asked about how this will impact people who have had the ability to tether in the past, T-Mobile replied with this very generic form letter:
“T-Mobile does not currently support handset tethering and Wi-Fi sharing or offer a tethering rate plan. Beginning this holiday season, T-Mobile will offer a Tethering and Wi-Fi Sharing service plan that lets customers use their G2 as wireless modem for connecting laptops and other devices to the internet through the T-Mobile network. Customers will be able to add the Tethering and Wi-Fi Sharing plan to their Web Unlimited $30/monthly plan for an additional $14.99 per month.”
Reading between the lines, T-Mobile said they don’t “support” tethering, they didn’t say that they “prohibit” tethering. There’s a fairly sizable difference between the two.
Unfortunately, it means that while they’ll probably look the other way for the time being, later this year if you want to continue to have this option you’ll need to fork over an additional $15/month.
I don’t like that. However, looking deeper, if I want to go with T-Mobile’s wireless broadband, I’m looking at a $200 modem (unless I sign-up for a 2-year contract) and $40/month for unlimited data. Or I can use my phone (saving me $200) and sign up for the tethering plan for $15/month.
Put that way, T-Mobile’s tethering rates don’t seem that bad.