Tethering on Android: It’s Your Data, Use It Your Way ;).
The Froyo dilemma
Google saw fit to develop and release full on Wi-Fi hotspot and tethering capabilities in Android 2.2 Froyo for the Nexus One. The Nexus is basically Google’s development phone, so it gets all the goodies without carrier interference. The only problem is buying a Nexus One. While HTC is still making them, Google has stopped selling them directly. You can always pick up a used one on Craigslist or Ebay, and some websites like Expansys will sell you a new one at a premium. Google is also going to be selling them to registered developers soon. It just takes a $25 fee to register.
If you lay hands on a Nexus One with either AT&T or T-Mobile 3G bands, you can use the Wi-Fi hotspot and USB tethering for free. There is no way for the carrier to know what type of data you are using. On the their end, it just looks like data. If they wanted to detect tethering, they’d have to do deep packet inspection, and that is usually frowned upon from a legal and privacy standpoint. The Wi-Fi hotspot is the more desirable of the two options because you can run up to five devices at once on the data connection. This is a road warrior’s dream.
But we may soon need to wake up from that dream and take a long, hard look at the reality of the wireless business. Most phones are customized by carriers and manufacturers. Just look at all the junk software that you find on Android phones these days. It’s not just the adding of apps to be aware of, it’s the taking away of features. If there was ever a feature a carrier would want to rip out of Android, it’s the free tethering. As devices make the jump to Froyo, we’ll have to wait and see how carriers handle this.
It’s going to be depressing if the Nexus One ends up the only phone with Google’s stock tethering, as we’ve found it works beautifully. Maybe an also-ran service provider like T-Mobile won’t make the effort to remove the functionality. But AT&T is likely to remove it just like they remove the option to sideload apps. Alternatively, we may see carriers modifying the stock tethering support to be a paid service connected to a user’s account.
Third-party USB tethering
There are a few well known apps available on Android that can help you better use your mobile data. These apps offer free trials, and limited functionality after that. The price isn’t usually that high, and it’s only a one time fee, unlike what your carrier would charge for the official service.
PDAnet is an app that has been available on Android for a long time, and was on other platforms before that. The app is available in the Market listed as a free app. When you install it you get a 15 day free trial to test the app. After that time you can still use the app for free, but it will not work on secure domains (that means anything with an https).
The first time you launch the app it will ask you to download the PC or Mac client on your computer. When that is installed, the phone and computer will see each other immediately. Just click the Enable USB Tethering button in PDAnet on the phone, then the connect option on the PC side. We found the connection to be very smooth with no real hiccups. The quality of the USB connection was every bit as good as Google’s built in Froyo tethering. There is a Bluetooth tethering option as well, but no Wi-Fi option.
The full version of PDAnet is currently going for about $19. That license covers one phone, but unlimited computers. If that price is still a little too high for you, there is always Easy Tether Lite. This app works exactly like PDAnet does, but is USB only. Just install the app from the Market and get the desktop software from the developer’s site. However, it will not allow you a full preview of the app. No secure sites can be accessed until you pay up. On the plus side, it only costs $10 to buy a full license.
These apps are both very good values when you consider the total cost of paying a carrier every month for tethering. A note to the nerdier among our readers, PDAnet doesn’t like it when you use certain Android SDK tools when it’s running. We needed to restart due to this, but it’s the only stability issue we saw.
Unfortunately, there is no way to get a real Wi-Fi tethering app in the Market. The APIs just don’t exist in pre-Froyo builds of Android. There are a number of cooked ROMs that you can install on rooted phones that will provide this functionality though.
The legit route
If you have your heart set on Wi-Fi hotspot functionality but aren’t on a Nexus One, you’re probably going to need to pay up. Carriers have begun offering some interesting options on their big flagship phones. The HTC Evo 4G was the first Android phone to have carrier supported Wi-Fi hotspot functionality. Sprint is charging an extra $30 per month to use it though. This nearly doubles the monthly data bill. On the plus side, the data is uncapped on this phone thanks to the $10 premium charged for the 4G capability (even if you don’t have it in your area).
Verizon too is getting in the Wi-Fi hotspot race with the new Droid X, and Droid Incredible (with an upcoming software update). Verizon is being a little more stingy with the data for their Wi-Fi hotspot option. Users will pay $20 per month for 2GB of data. Frankly, that’s kind of a depressingly low cap. You can blow through 2GB in an afternoon if you’re not careful. Verizon will charge an additional five cents per megabyte over the 2GB cap. An additional gigabyte will run about $50 at that rate. Try using 3G Watchdog from the Market to track data usage in addition to Verizon’s own tracking tools.
We are of the opinion that it’s your data, and because you are paying for it, you should be allowed to use in whatever way you like. Even if the total cost is a little higher, we just want to be paying once for data. The idea of needing to double the bill, or buy a new, smaller bucket of bytes to tether seems ridiculous at this point. We hope that in the future carriers will ditch the arbitrary restrictions on tethering your smartphone, but we aren’t holding our breath.
At least on Android, you’ve got options. USB tethering is easy and inexpensive if you don’t mind going behind the carriers’ backs. If you have, or buy, a Nexus One all the tethering is built right in. We’re interested to see if any mobile providers allow us to have the free Froyo tethering when Android 2.2 hits more devices. We’ll have a better idea when Verizon updates the Motorola Droid to 2.2 in the next few weeks. Until then, maybe you ought to give PDAnet a shot.