Carriers split on support for tethering

With all of the interest in and emphasis on mobile broadband, I'm somewhat surprised that cell phone tethering remains the niche service it appears to be.

For those who don't know, tethering allows users to tie their laptop to their cell phone and use it as a modem, thereby accessing the Internet via their wireless carrier's network. It's a relatively simple proposition, as long as you're able to configure your computer to recognize your phone as a conduit to the Internet, and I've happily used it on a number of occasions.

However, I suspect I'm in the minority, simply because tethering is a service that gets very little play in Tier 1 carriers' marketing and promotional efforts--which I think is surprising given the recent prominence of USB modems, data cards, dongles, wireless-embedded netbooks and the like. After all, tethering does not require a carrier to subsidize an additional device, and users don't need to carry around an additional gadget in order to connect.

To get a better sense of how the nation's Tier 1 carrier stack up on the issue of tethering, I pinged representatives from Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA to see if and how they offer the service. Here's how it breaks down:

  • Verizon takes perhaps the clearest and most logical approach to tethering. Called "Mobile Broadband Connect," the service is $15 a month when added to a Nationwide Email Plan for smartphones; $30 when added to a data-only plan for smartphones and $49.99 when added to a voice plan and used with a feature phone. The service provides 5 GB per month with 5 cents per MB thereafter. It's available on the vast majority of the carrier's phones, though a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman noted that it may not be immediately available on new devices (such as Motorola's Droid). "Since we can always add it, we don't hold up a (device) launch for this service," wrote Verizon's Brenda Raney.
  • AT&T offers a similar setup: Tethering is available on a range of devices and generally costs an extra $15 to $30, depending on the plan. However, AT&T's tethering support does not extend to the iPhone. Despite Apple adding tethering capabilities to the iPhone earlier this year, AT&T does not allow iPhoners to use the service. "By its nature, this function could exponentially increase traffic on the network, and we need to ensure that some of our current upgrades are in place before we can deliver the expanded functionality with the excellent performance that customers expect," the carrier said in a statement in September. "We expect to offer tethering in the future."
  • While AT&T and Verizon each offer relatively straightforward--albeit understated--tethering options, Sprint's approach to tethering appears to have been tripped up by its "Simply Everything" plans. Sprint does offer tethering (dubbed Phone as Modem) for an extra $15 on a variety of devices, including the Palm Pre--as long as users subscribe to one of its Business Advantage, Business Essentials or Talk plans. However, tethering is not available on Sprint's Simply Everything plans, despite CEO Dan Hesse promoting Simply Everything as "removing the barriers for customers to feel free to use all of the features of their phones." When pressed as to why tethering is not offered on Simply Everything plans, Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Greenwood said: "Strategically, the Phone as Modem attachable and its associated 5 GB total usage limitation does not align with the core unlimited talk, messaging and data benefits of the Simply Everything plan."
  • And what about T-Mobile, the nation's No. 4 carrier that is in the midst of building out a 3G network? "Please note that T-Mobile does not currently offer or support handset tethering," the carrier wrote in response to questions. "Data plans are intended for Web browsing, messaging, downloading applications and similar activities on your device and are not intended to provide Internet connectivity for computers." But what of T-Mobile users who claim to have tethered to the carrier's network? "At this time T-Mobile has no further comment."

So what does this all mean? I asked Current Analysis analyst William Ho about it, and he said tethering is a difficult service to bill for (particularly for T-Mobile and Sprint, it seems), and carriers prefer to promote mobile broadband offerings like USB modems and netbooks with built-in wireless connectivity. Indeed, a typical monthly mobile broadband plan for a netbook or dongle costs $60 a month, far more than the $15-$30 Verizon, AT&T and Sprint charge for tethering.

Nonetheless, I suspect all of the nation's Tier 1 carriers eventually will be forced to iron out their approaches tethering. After all, what savvy shopper would opt for a $1,440 netbook ($60 per month for service during a two-year contract) over a dramatically cheaper tethering option that can be applied to virtually any computer? --Mike