iPhone

Are the benefits of mobile tethering worth the additional cost?

According to Scott Lowe, the cost/benefit of mobile tethering is very clear. Before you make a decision, consider the additional cost, performance, security, and bandwidth caps.

For the longest time, AT&T's inability (or, more accurately, unwillingness) to allow iPhone devices to be used for tethered Internet connections was a huge sore spot for many users and exposed a major weakness in the AT&T mobile product portfolio. However, last year, the company finally relented and users willing to pay an additional monthly fee have enjoyed the ability to tether their laptops and mobile phones, effectively using the iPhone as a gateway to the Internet for other devices, such as laptops.

More recently, AT&T and Apple have added "mobile hotspot" capability to the iPhone. This feature allows the iPhone to act as a wireless access point, which in turn uses the cellular data network to operate. In simple terms, a laptop connects to the iPhone using Wi-Fi (or Bluetooth or USB), which connects to the Internet using Edge or 3G. The configuration process is really a piece of cake, so I won't cover it here, but I do want to discuss some decision points to consider around the question of tethering.

Cost

Adding tethering to your existing account will cost another $15 to $20 or so on top of your existing data plan rate. The tethered data plan includes 4 GB of usage per month. This is not an additional 4 GB on top of the 2 GB you get with your iPhone data plan; you get 4 GB of data to use in total.

If you travel a lot or if you don't use much Internet at home, this additional $20 charge might be a perfect fit. Many travel hubs and destinations, including some airports and hotels, continue to charge for Wi-Fi access. These charges can add up pretty fast. That $20 per month might be much less expensive than accumulated charges for public Wi-Fi. At home, if you're paying $30 or $40 for Internet access and you're not using it a whole lot, a tethered data plan might save you a few bucks, as well.

Performance

Obviously, not all cellular networks have the same performance characteristics of their wired -- think DSL, cable -- counterparts. Whereas getting a 20 Mbps connection from the cable TV company is pretty common these days, you're not typically going to get similar speeds from a tethered mobile device. In general, I get 2 to 3 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps on the upload side. This is more than acceptable for what I need on the road, and it can even handle more intensive apps, such as Skype.

Latency, however, is a bit of an issue. In my testing tonight from a restaurant in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was seeing latency figures of around 250 ms. If I was trying to win a first person shooter game, I might not like this ¼ second of latency, but for browsing the web and doing remote desktop stuff, it's fairly acceptable.

Security

Free Wi-Fi isn't free when it comes to security. Although the security ramifications around unsecured open Wi-Fi are well known, many places -- including the restaurant I'm in right now -- offer free, unsecured Wi-Fi. I opt instead to use a secured Wi-Fi connection to my iPhone-based mobile hotspot. This way, my traffic is encrypted and I can browse safely without having to worry about other people listening in. The extra few buck per month is worth it, since it allows me to do my work more securely that I could with open Wi-Fi networks.

Bandwidth caps

Another item that needs to be considered when it comes to tethering is whether or not you can stay within the confines of the imposed bandwidth cap. In my case, that cap is 4 GB with my iPhone and AT&T service. However, at home, I have a wired Internet connection. I don't need to use my AT&T tethered service there, so 4 GB is more than adequate.

Photo credit: BNET

However, if I ever considered replacing my home service with my tethered data plan, I'd have to significantly change my Internet habits at home and stop downloading ISOs, stop watching NetFlix-based movies, and scale back pretty much everything I do for my job. As such, in my case, this move wouldn't be feasible. But between keeping my home Internet service and using my tethered device when I travel, I very easily stay within the confines of my data cap.

I have used the tethered plan at home a few times in a pinch, though. When my home service failed, I was able to keep working by using my tethered device. It was great to have a backup!

Summary

Given the kind of work I do and my job expectations, I would have a very difficult time without a tethered data plan. I've found it incredibly useful to be able to fire up a secure hotspot wherever I happen to be and get some work done. In my case, the cost/benefit is very, very clear. For others, it might be a little muddier. However, it's important to keep in mind that there are ramifications beyond simple cost. The added security of a mobile hotspot was also a key factor when I chose to go the tethered route and pony up some additional money for my monthly cellular bill.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

6 comments
elvis_higgins
elvis_higgins

Move to Android on T-Mobile. Tethering and Hotspot are free, at least until AT&T takes over and ruins T-Mobile.

jcockrell
jcockrell

Why would you pay for tethering, I've been tethering for free since my G1 since 2009 on android. I Don't tether all the time just when I need a secured connecting like looking at a banking website or email or when the college wifi isn't working. There's tons of tethering apps you can download for a one time fee and tether away, just do the research.

Daniel Breslauer
Daniel Breslauer

Here in the UK, I pay around 9 GBP monthly for 1 GB (and can add another GB for the same price if I want), tethering is allowed without problems (O2 business contract). That's on a 1-month (ie, monthly) contract - no 12- or 24-year contract. Lately I rarely use it, but it's good to have around anyway. The business contract's internet package allows me to use my data allowance for whatever I want that is not allowed with consumer contracts, such as VoIP calls, aside from tethering. But now the practical side. Wi-fi tethering costs a huge amount of power; it's only feasible if you have a power socket right next to you. My Nokia E72 does tethering via USB, Bluetooth and WiFi. Advantages and disadvantages: * USB is the fastest and allows me to charge my phone simultaneously. In Israel, where I lived before, I once had 7 Mbit/s down, 2 Mbit/s up and 21 ms ping - and that's called 3G there. Downside is it requires a cable. * Bluetooth is amazing. Requires little power, speed is plenty (1 Mbit/s usually), and no cable needed. I can use my phone for hours like this (tested 6 hours once, never longer). * WiFi takes a lot of power but has the advantage of being able to connect multiple devices. As mentioned before, it's only practical if you have a power socket around - or charge the phone from your laptop, in which case you might as well use USB tethering. The only occasions where I used WiFi tethering were when I was at my mother-in-law's house, with no WiFi, and needed to use my laptop now and then. Hooked the phone up to power, turned WiFi tethering on, and voila. Then I had unlimited mobile internet for - converted - $38 monthly, with unlimited meaning unlimited; I reached above 15 GB per month now and then and this was perfectly fine. Now that I'm on a 1GB cap (unless I buy more) I am a lot more judicious in my tethering usage. I doubt I cross 500 MB a month, even.

radleym
radleym

Tethering charges are ridiculous, an admission by wireless companies that they couldn't support the unlimited plans they were selling. There is zero value provided by the wireless companies for this non-existant product.

h8usernames
h8usernames

A few years ago I was a mobile consultant (for lack of a better term) and almost lived off of my tethered internet connection getting 20Gb of data per month to use (obviously not AT&T in the US). Then when I stopped doing that and reverted to a "normal" user I found that my good ole BlackBerry was actually all I ever needed. For writing your article or doing real work it isn't really viable but for sending quick emails between appointments, getting quick references or doing a quick search a good mobile handset with the right data plan is perfect. In saying all of that tethering was fantastic, especially if there was an appointment delayed by an hour or the middle of the day was empty because I could jump online and do the normal tasks I would do in the office. Value is definitely relative to the user and what they do. These days I wouldn't bother but tomorrow who knows??

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I work at a College where I'm expected to demonstrate (and enforce) appropriate behavior with regard to these kinds of agreements. Normal data plans don't allow tethering, as per the agreements, so I pay a bit extra to keep it on the up and up and "walk the walk" regarding appropriate use of technology. Yeah, my staying in line might be a small drop in the pond, but there is a credibility issue. Scott

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