Tethering (AKA Phone-as-Modem): Get the Facts!
By now, most people are familiar with the concept of mobile broadband, but did you know that many phones and PDAs can be used as mobile broadband modems? A dedicated USB, ExpressCard, or PCMCIA card modem is the perfect solution for many people, including frequent travelers or folks without access to fixed-line broadband like DSL or cable, but there are many people who could benefit from occassional EVDO access but don't want to be contracted to pay $59.99/month. For backup, temporary, or occassional mobile broadband needs, tethering is the perfect solution!
Tethering, which is also referred to as "Phone-as-Modem", refers to using your cell phone as a 3G modem by connecting it to your computer via USB or Bluetooth (some phones can even be tethered to routers, allowing you to share the connection with multiple computers). With a tether-capable phone and the appropriate Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T plan, you can avoid having another device with its own costly monthly bill and enjoy the freedom of mobile broadband wherever you take your phone.
There are many things to consider when deciding if tethering will work for you. Let's examine the costs, equipment, performance, pro's and con's:
Which phones are tether-capable?
Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T offer many phones that can be used as a modem. You can view a full list of past and present tether-capable AT&T phones by clicking here, and Verizon maintains a list of past and present tether-capable devices on the VZAccess Manager website (Sprint unfortunately does not have a comprehensive list of all their tether-capable devices available online). Remember that even if a phone is data-capable (meaning you can access the web or email on the phone), it may not be tether-capable, so it's important to check the features on the phone you're interested in if you plan to use your phone for tethering.
Sprint Below are the currently available tether-capable phones from Sprint (if you have an OLDER phone and are not sure if it is tether capable, you can consult your phone's user manual [look for "phone as modem" or "tethering"], contact Sprint, search the EVDO Forums, or contact 3Gstore):
* - This phone is EVDO Rev-A capable
Important note about tethering with Sprint: Effective 4/10/2010, Sprint no longer allows customers with individual-liable accounts (accounts set up with a social security number) to use the tethering feature - only business customers whose accounts were set up with a federal tax ID can use Sprint's tethering feature. Click here to read more .
Verizon: Verizon maintains a full list of all of their past and present tether-capable devices on their website. You can view the list via this link: VZAccess Manager website.
AT&T: AT&T maintains a full list of all of their past and present tether-capable devices on their website. You can view the list via this link: AT&T Tether-Capable Phones. How much does tethering cost?
Tethering incurs an extra fee and is NOT included in the cost of data packages that you can add in order to access web and email on your phone (for example, if you have a Blackberry and are paying for web and email access, that fee does not include tethering). However, unlike a dedicated mobile broadband device, you are NOT contracted to pay for the tethering feature each month - you can turn the feature on and off as needed and the monthly fee is pro-rated if you only use it for a partial month. Below are the costs for tethering with Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T:
- Tethering fee: $15/month (plus you must have data pack - see next bullet point)
- Requirements: Compatible phone AND Sprint Power Vision data pack ($30/month) or Blackberry data pack ($30/month)
- Restrictions: CANNOT be added to the "Simply Everything" or "Everything" plans; cannot be added by individual-liable accounts (read more here)
- Tethering fee:
- With standard (non-PDA) phone: $49.99/mo
- With PDA/Blackberry and $29.99/mo data pack: $30/mo
- With PDA/Blackberry and $44.99/mo data pack: $15/mo
- Requirements: Compatible phone
- Restrictions: None
- Tethering fee:
- With standard (non-PDA) phone: $60/mo for 5GB; $40/mo for 200MB; $20/mo for 10MB (keep in mind that 200MB is hardly any data at all, and 10MB is virtually nothing - we DO NOT recommend these plans!)
- With PDA/Blackberry and $30/mo data pack: $30/mo
- Requirements: Compatible phone
- Restrictions: None
Can a tethered phone provide the same speeds as a dedicated EVDO/HSPA device?
Verizon/Sprint and AT&T use different technology for their mobile broadband. For Verizon and Sprint phones, the performance a tethered phone is able to provide depends largely on whether the phone is EVDO Rev-A capable. Rev-A is the updated EVDO network that is capable of delivering faster download and upload speeds than the original EVDO network. While all of the currently available EVDO modems from Sprint and Verizon are Rev-A, most phones/PDAs are only capable of connecting at EVDO Rev-0 speeds - even if you're in a Rev-A-covered location. The difference between EVDO Rev-A and Rev-0 is substantial. With an EVDO Rev-0 phone, the speeds will be in the range of 400kbps-700kbps download (bursts up to 2.0Mbps), 50kbps-100kbps Upload (bursts to 144Kbps). This is fine for checking your email or casual web browsing, but heavier users will prefer Rev-A. If you know that you will be using your Sprint or Verizon phone for tethering regularly, we highly recommend selecting one of the available Rev-A . With a Rev-A phone from Sprint/Verizon, you can experience the same speeds you'd see with a dedicated modem - 600Kbps-1,400Kbps download (with bursts to 2.0Mbps) and 500Kbps-800Kbps upload (with bursts to 1.8Mbps). Below is a sample of the speeds we saw when tethering Verizon's LG Dare (which is Rev-A) to a MacBook Pro:
AT&T uses a different technology for their 3G mobile broadband, HSPA. The performance of an HSPA device largely depends on whether the device is HSDPA (the "D" stands for "download"), HSUPA (the "U" stands for upload"), or both. HSDPA devices are capable of high-speed downloads but the upload speed will be limited. The "best" AT&T 3G devices are both HSDPA and HSUPA, meaning they can take full advantage of AT&T's high-speed 3G HSPA network. Unfortunately, AT&T does not list on their website which phones are HSDPA, HSUPA, or both, and a phone listed as "3G-capable" may not really be capable of connecting at the highest speeds AT&T can offer. Click here to read more about the performance of tethering AT&T's 3G phones.
Performance is also highly dependent on SIGNAL STRENGTH. Most dedicated mobile broadband devices these days feature antenna ports where you can attach an antenna to improve your signal (and thus your performance), but not all phones have antenna ports. If you are concerned about signal strength, you may want to select a phone that has an antenna port so that you have the option of attaching an antenna if you encounter weak signal.
Does tethering provide UNLIMITED Mobile Broadband access?
No. Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T impose the same 5GB allowance and overage charges to tethering customers as they do for dedicated device subscribers (in addition to the 5GB plan, AT&T also offers 200MB and 10MB plans for a lower cost - keep in mind that 200MB is hardly any data at all, and 10MB is virtually nothing - we DO NOT recommend those plans!). For more information about what you can do with 5GB, check out this article: What Does 5GB Get Me?
Also remember that if you only have tethering active for part of the month, the 5GB allowance is pro-rated as well as the charge. For example, you can't sign up for Verizon's $49.99/month tethering plan on your Blackberry, use 5GB in one week, and then turn it off - if you only have tethering active for one week, you can only use one week's worth of data (about 1.25GB).
Can I talk on my phone while I'm tethering?
With AT&T, yes, you can talk on the phone and tether at the same time. With Sprint and Verizon, NO. If a call comes in while you are in tether-mode on a Sprint or Verizon phone, you have two options: ignore the call and allow it to go to voicemail, maintaining your tethered connection, or answer the call and disconnect. Another option is to set up call fowarding while you're tethering so that your incoming calls go directly to an alternate phone number (i.e. your home phone or spouse's cell phone).
Can I share the tethered connection by using a router?
In some cases, yes. Not all phones/PDAs are compatible with routers, however. You can see a full list of compatible devices here: 3G Router Compatibility Chart. If the phone you want to tether with is NOT officially supported by a router, it may still work - you can check the list of unofficially supported phones that we have tested here: Using an Unsupported Phone with a Cradlepoint Router. We also recommend searching the EVDO Forums or contacting 3Gstore to see if others have had success using the device in question with a router.
What are the Pro's and Con's of tethering?
- Convenient - no need to have an additional device
- Save money - only pay when you need the service
- No contract - tethering is considered a "feature" on your phone and does not require its own contract
- Not all phones are Rev-A or 3G compatible; all currently available dedicated devices are
- Not all phones have antenna ports; most dedicated devices do
- Can't talk on Sprint/Verizon phones while tethering
- Limited router compatibility
- Not compatible with certain Sprint plans
- Sprint doesn't allow individual-liable accounts to add tethering (read more here)
- Remember that the 5GB allowance is pro-rated as well if you don't keep tethering on for a full month.
The bottom line:
Tethering is an excellent option for occassional or backup mobile broadband access and can save you a lot of money over a dedicated device. However, if you're a heavy internet user or can't live without being able talk on the phone at the same time as surfing the web, you'll be better off with a dedicated device.
One last note about tethering:
While Verizon, Sprint and AT&T offer many tether-capable phones and the service is perfectly legal, many carrier reps have never heard of it and may not know how to help you if you call!!! We have heard customers say "I asked Verizon to activate tethering, but the rep told me that was not possible."
Do not get discouraged if the rep you speak with is unfamiliar with tethering. When speaking with Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T, make sure you ask to activate the "tethering feature" or "phone-as-modem feature" - if you refer to it as a "data" feature they will assume you are referring to one of the data packages that provides email and web access ON your phone.