The quirky conundrum of tethering and hotspots

Using your phone for a computer connection is very expensive, or it's free. It's a weird thing.

It’s a weird thing, a service that’s either free or $50. But the way today’s wireless customers are expected to pay for data plans today, that’s how it stands for anyone who wants to use their phone to connect a laptop or another device to the web.

That connection is usually termed as either “tethering” when it involves a cable connection between phone and laptop, and as a “hotspot” when the device creates a very small Wi-Fi access point that multiple devices can connect to wirelessly. To anyone who’s had to pay painful ransoms for working Wi-Fi at a hotel or airport, or found their coffee shop’s connection unusably bogged down, this sounds like a nice little preparedness tool.

And it is, but if you want to “officially” tether your phone, it’s going to cost you. Under AT&T’s newest data pricing, you have to purchase the most expensive plan, $50 per 5 GB per month. Sprint charges $29.99 per month for Sprint Mobile Hotspot, which is capped at 5 GB per month, and Verizon hotspot plans include a 4 GB monthly offering for $50.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, is, according to what looks like leaked internal memos, bundling hotspot service with its unlimited 4G data plans, beginning Jan. 25. It’s cited as a potential tool for salespeople to push a customer on the fence and weighing data costs toward the fourth-place network. But then again, how many customers are really aware that tethering and hotspots are even available, and what they offer?

I couldn’t find any research or studies showing tethering or hotspot use in searches of Google News and a private research database (but if you’ve found a good study or survey, leave a comment here and I’ll update the post). Informally, among friends and contacts, the only folks who know about tethering know two things about it: it’s expensive if you pay for it, and that there are many ways to avoid paying for it.

One of the biggest reasons, if not perhaps the biggest reason, that owners of Android and iPhone phones “root” or “jailbreak” their device to install custom firmware and operating systems is so they can install unofficial tethering and hotspot services. Perhaps the most popular unofficial system, CyanogenMod, is at the point where it not only pushes Google to offer some of its features in their official Android builds, but is considering its own Android app store, to provide apps like ClockworkMod Tether.

The main pitch for ClockworkMod Tether is that it uses a bit of Android development know-how to pass your cellular connection along to a Windows, Mac, or Linux system without, supposedly, your carrier being able to notice the conversion taking place. Carriers have, in the past, shown that they can see exactly what customers are doing when they plug into their phone, whether by simply blocking the effort and showing a warning, or going a bit further and automatically adding a tethering plan to a customer’s service plan.. Some carriers have exerted their influence to make unofficial tethering apps unavailable to their customers in the Android Market, while Google, in its own line of Nexus devices, makes tethering and hotspots a built-in feature.

Using official or unofficial tethering apps, the connection is almost never as fast as it would be on just the device alone, especially when it comes to looking up new sites and searching. Nobody looks or feels in control when they have to fumble with two devices connected by a cord. And when you make a phone or tablet into a straight-up data pipeline, the battery life is about as good as if you were using it as a space heater. But a certain set of users will always want a backup plan, and the phone is the best one most of us have.

Do you tether your phone, on-contract or otherwise? When has it come in handy, and when has it been more hassle than it’s worth? I welcome your tethering and hotspot thoughts in the comments.

Photo and thumbnail image by davestone.

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