Cellphone Tethering: Is it a big deal?

Is a smartphone really that smart if providers put limits on how its data connection is used? Cellphone tethering, or using your cell phone to access internet services on your computer, is in the news because of recent actions by Apple, Palm, and Google.

Apple is releasing their new OS for their phones, dubbed iPhone 3.0, that includes tethering – unless you live in the US because AT&T tethering support isn’t available yet. Earlier this spring, Google pulled all tethering apps from the Android app store at T-Mobile’s request. Palm has sent a polite cease and desist to the “Pre Dev Wiki” website asking for tethering instructions to be removed because they might upset Sprint, Palm’s exclusive service partner in the US. Given that tethering has been available on phones for several years now, why are cell providers suddenly so concerned? Are they worried that customers would cancel their land based internet connections in favor of cellular based ones? Or that tethering would cut into the USB data card market?

It is interesting that tethering is a bigger deal as the phones themselves become easier to use for standard computing tasks. Before switching to the iPhone, I had a Sprint PPC-6700 that supported tethering and loved using it for internet while traveling. I would never consider using that phone for normal web surfing tasks, yet with my iPhone, I can do exactly that. On my last trip, I didn’t bother hooking up my laptop, as I was able to do everything I needed to on my phone.

Cellular Data plans cost more today than they did 5 years ago – AT&T charges $30.00 for the data package on the iPhone, which is more than all but one of their DSL packages. Sprint requires customers to signup for their “Simply Everything” plans on premium phone contracts. Providers argue that users that tether consume more bandwith than their smartphone counterparts. And that is probably true.

As a user, I automatically chafe whenever seemingly arbitrary limits are put in front of me. If you are going to sell an “unlimited” data plan, then by golly, don’t put any limits on it. A bit is a bit is a bit, regardless if that bit is intended for the phone itself or a computer connected to that phone.

In order for Skype to be approved for the iPhone app store, it had to be limited to wifi only connections. Other software, like the SlingPlayer app, which streams recorded TV to your iPhone, have similar restrictions put on them. In light of these decisions, it seems that what the cell providers are really concerned with is loosing control of what services customers use over their network. If they allowed tethering, they’d have to deal with every network based application available, from network games, to VoIP, to Bittorrent.

Without getting on my soapbox, it sounds similar to the discussions surrounding Net Neutrality. Could the current smartphone internet landscape reflect what the internet could look like without neutrality?

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