How can wireless carriers detect if you are tethering your device?


First off, I understand that, depending on the user agreement, using your device as a wireless hotspot can violate the terms of service. Setting aside the question of how fair it is to have to pay an additional charge to use the amount of data that you are already paying for (hmmm, not sure I sounded all that neutral there), how can carriers tell if you are tethering your device? Why would they really care anyway? If you go over your data plan limits they either charge you a hefty overage or throttle your speeds to a crawl, so I'm not sure what they lose if their customers are tethering anyway.

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Christopher Nerney
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Based on some research I did for an article about a carrier using data analytics to examine traffic and usage patterns, the carriers can tell which apps are accessing their networks. That includes tethering apps, of course.

The reason carriers care is because they want to charge customers for their own tethering services. But last summer, Verizon Wireless and the Federal Communications Commission reached a settlement that allows Verizon customers to use their smartphones as wi-fi hotspots for other devices at no extra cost. Tethering is now included in Verizon's base wireless plan.

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AT&T seems to be the most aggressive about looking for tethering, and are quick to detect it.  I'm not an AT&T customer, but my carrier charges extra if you want to use your device as a hotspot, and removed the function from the phone.  Soooooo, I rooted my phone, sideloaded an app that enables it to work as a WiFi hotspot and uses a proxy server to keep it somewhat on the "down low" and only use it on the rare occasion when I am away from WiFi and really need to get online with my laptop.  I probably end up needing to use it once every 2 or 3 months and stay well under my data limit, so my carrier either hasn't turned its all seeing eye upon me, or that little amount doesn't bother them.  I'll take the chance, although I'm sure that they would prefer I pay them $30 a month extra instead.    


If a carrier really is looking, I think that they will pick it up, often through TLL values or the APNs that tethered data traffic uses.  Like Christopher Nerney pointed out, it isn't as if the carriers are new to data analytics.  It's just a little unclear exactly what raises the red flag.  


The Verizon thing was somehow related to the specific spectrum used or something (I can't remember without looking it up), and it doesn't apply to other carriers.  So if you aren't a Verizon customer and you are tether, you are still a bad boy who plays by his own rules.  And probably violates your TOS, which I might feel bad about if the carriers didn't constantly change the TOS to be as beneficial as possible to them.        

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