Why you can totally tether your Verizon Android phone for free

Verizon's hunger for spectrum space, and add-on fees, led instead to a flourishing unofficial tether and hotspot market.

The Wi-Fi at CoworkBuffalo took a dive this afternoon, and I couldn’t work offline. So I connected my Samsung Galaxy Nexus to my ThinkPad, and away I went, using Verizon’s 4G network to power my day, to the tune of 1.6 gigabytes. And due to a court order, Verizon can’t really do that much about it.

Okay, sure, Verizon can throttle my connection after I use a certain amount, even on a grandfathered “unlimited” plan. But as for the phone-to-laptop connection sharing, or tethering? Verizon can’t do much at all. The Big Red carrier pushed hard on quirky tethering apps, the apps and users pushed back, and now Verizon has to simply suck it up whenever a savvy laptop owner wants to check their email in a spot with bad or non-existent Wi-Fi.

What happened was, nearly six months ago, Android phone owners searching the Play Store for apps that allow the use of cellular data through a USB cable (”tethering”) or over Wi-Fi (”mobile hotspot”) noticed that a whole bunch of apps were missing from the mix. Apps like EasyTether Lite and PdaNet were gone, or notified the would-be installer that the app wasn’t allowed on their particular network. Sites like Tested described the apparent joint decision by carriers, with Google’s permission, to block tethering apps. Verizon wasn’t the only carrier blocking tether apps, as all of the major US carriers charge anywhere from $20 to $40 to customers who want to activate their phones’ built-in hotspot or tethering features.

But Verizon was the only carrier who bought a section of the public airwaves, known as “Block C,” (the “Upper 700MHz C-Block,” to be precise) that were up for sale after TV broadcasts were forced to go digital—that great HDTV upheaval you probably remember, with tuner coupons and media freak-outs and such. Ironically, it was Google itself that placed a minimum bid of $4.6 billion that activated an openness clause, although Google itself didn’t follow through to purchase a spectrum license for itself. By placing part of its 4G LTE network inside the C Block, Verizon inherently agreed that it ”shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network,“ according to the FCC, with “narrow exceptions.”.

Basically, Verizon believed that “applications of their choice” did not include applications that replicated the mobile hotspot and tethering features for which they charge the bulk of their existing 4G LTE customers more than $20 extra per month. The FCC heard about the shutdown of third-party tethering, asked Verizon what was going on, and Verizon Wireless replied, as stated in the FCC’s press release:

Verizon Wireless stated that the additional fee reflected the fact that customers who tether laptops or other devices have the capability to use more data capacity than others.

But Verizon wasn’t just charging customers with unlimited plans to narrow the 4G bandwidth, but customers paying by the individual gigabyte. At the same time, it was blocking apps that allowed for tethering, and, of course, charging them if they went over their allotted data transfer amounts. That doesn’t add up to customers with “use (of) the devices and applications of their choice,” so earlier this summer, Verizon paid the FCC $1.25 million and backed off its pressure on Google to curtail tethering apps for its customers.

AT&T and Sprint? Still totally blocking tethering apps when they can. T-Mobile? Mostly silent. But Verizon customers everywhere can use tethering apps however they like. Verizon customers with grandfathered “unlimited” data plans can still be blocked, supposedly, but Verizon can’t always see your tethering activity—especially if you use a deep-down app like, say, ClockworkMod Tether.

Ahem. So, thanks to Verizon’s hunger for spectrum and overreaching data policies, its customers have the ability to use the data they paid for most any way they would like. The big red house does not, in other words, always win.

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