What is Tethering, and Should You Care?

I've been hearing a lot about tethering lately. It's been around for years, but I've never given it much thought, probably because (a) I have a dumb phone that doesn't even have Bluetooth, and (b) because I use T-Mobile on my cell phone, which doesn't officially support tethering

Anyway, I don’t really blame myself. Trying to navigate the truths about tethering is like finding dry land in Waterworld. In any event, I set out to answer these basic questions:

  • What exactly is tethering and how does it work?
  • What does it cost to tether?
  • What devices support tethering?
  • Is the performance when tethering acceptable, and for what tasks?

Below are the answers.

What exactly is tethering and how does it work?

In simple terms, tethering is connecting to the Internet on a computer (e.g., a laptop or netbook) through a mobile device. In other words, the phone is used as a modem, and can connect to the computer via USB or Bluetooth.

What does it cost (monthly) to tether?

It varies by each carrier and each individual smartphone. But the prices are generally:

  • AT&T: $20, after a $25 2GB data plan.
  • Sprint: $15, after a data plan (prices vary).
  • T-Mobile: T-Mobile doesn't officially support it.
  • Verizon: $15, after a $30 5GB data plan.

These are US rates—international rates vary. Rates may also vary for individual devices.

Also, my understanding is that technically you do not need a tethering plan, but the carrier reserves the right to charge you extra for tethering if you don't have one.

What devices support tethering?

The iPhone 4, newer Blackberry devices, and most Android smartphones support tethering. There are too many devices in this category to compile a comprehensive list, however, so I recommend running a Google search or talking to your provider about a specific device.

Windows Phone 7 devices won't support tethering at launch, but should in the near future. 

Is the performance when tethering acceptable, and for what tasks?

I have asked several people that use tethering about this, and I've received mixed responses. The general consensus seems to be that tethering is great when you're in a situation where you can't get Wi-Fi, or don't feel comfortable connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi connection and just need to perform a few simple tasks. However, in most cases, you'd probably just prefer to access the Internet on your phone, as you'll get better performance. (The extra connection to the laptop slows performance, and your laptop will generally eat up more bandwidth to run the same sites and applications.)

As far as exact numbers, I've seen a few sites suggest that 3G tethering can average about 1 Mbps download, assuming all is going well. But it certainly varies based on the network you have and the coverage you're getting.

Finally, there's a growing number of individuals who opt to pass on broadband Internet access at home, saving about $50/month, and just use tethering for home computing. Well, let's just say those individuals probably aren't playing World of Warcraft. It'd probably be fine for checking email, surfing the web, and watching a few YouTube videos (though those YouTube videos will eat up your data plan limit if you have one), but beyond that it's not going to cut it.

In summary, the pros of tethering are:

  • Convenient Internet access on your computer when you don't want to access a public network or one isn't available
  • Can use as an alternative to home broadband Internet in small doses

The cons are:

  • Cost—tethering will net you an extra $15-20 per month on top of the smartphone data plan
  • Connection speeds are, at best, a little slower than a smartphone's performance

For businesses: If you have a lot of mobile workers and can get a decent corporate rate, tethering can be a good alternative to having your employees using public Wi-Fi when they're on the go. But, don't expect it to change the face of mobile Internet access anytime soon.


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