The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

Summary: If your carrier asks you to pay for the right to tether (called mobile hotspot), and you do so without enrolling in (and paying for) this plan, then you are stealing service from your carrier.

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TOPICS: Mobility
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Few topics I have written about have generated such strong responses from readers as my recent article about tethering, and how carriers are going to be cracking down on those who abuse it. I still receive a dozen or so responses daily about this article, and all have the same theme: I pay for a data plan on my phone and I am entitled to use it the way I want. Sorry, but if your carrier asks you to pay for the right to tether (called mobile hotspot), and you manage to do so without enrolling in (and paying for) this plan, then you are stealing service from your carrier. I don't like it any more than you, but that's the way it is and at some point the carriers are going to crack down on those doing it.

Tethering is using the data connection of a smartphone (3G or 4G) to get other devices such as laptops connected to the web. Tethering is usually done using the phone's WiFi ability to create a mobile hotspot that other devices can use to get online. Most carriers are now offering tethering, called mobile hotspot service, for a $20-$30 monthly fee that can be used with 5 to 8 devices at a time.

Easy to justify but no cigar

Most smartphones can be altered to allow tethering without the paid service. Android phones can be rooted to enable this, and iPhones can be jailbroken to use a third party app to unlock the tethering. The simple truth is that those who go the unofficial tethering route are stealing service from the carrier, with the exception of those lucky customers whose plans allow tethering as part of the basic service. This is no different than the cable theft of old, using unofficial means to get cable TV service without paying the cable company. Most of us don't like the cable company due to the high fees they charge, but we pay them anyway because to do otherwise is stealing the service. Stealing service like cable thieves is exactly what unpaid tetherers are doing.

I have been given many different reasons from readers who are justifying their tethering. These reasons are all based on a sense of entitlement and break down to a few common justifications:

  • I pay for a certain amount of (or unlimited) data and I can use it anyway I want.
  • The carrier shouldn't care how I use the data I pay for.
  • It doesn't affect anyone else so why not?
  • The courts have ruled it is OK to root smartphones so I'm not doing anything wrong.
  • The high rates carrier charge makes it OK to do this.
  • I don't have a contract so it's OK to tether.

These reasons may sound fine on the surface, but they don't account for the contract that customers are bound by when they deal with their carrier. Customers don't pay for a bucket of data that can be used any way desired, we actually pay a fee that lets us use the carrier's network. Even those on a month-to-month basis are bound by a contract for service that is activated when we first turn on the phone or modem. That contract is augmented by a Terms of Service (TOS) agreement that further dictates exactly how we can (and can't) use the services without fear of cancellation.

Our agreement may state that we must pay an overage fee when we exceed a certain amount of data usage in a given period (the cap), but the carrier is not stating we are paying for the right to use that much data. Most carriers have unspecified "normal usage" parameters that are used to determine when customers exceed the intended usage, even if under the data cap. Carriers have been known to throttle usage, or even cancel, customers who regularly exceed the normal usage parameters, even when they don't exceed a specified cap. We may not like it but that's the way it works.

The TOS agreements of all carriers have pages of fine print that state essentially that even if you pay the fees, you cannot do things they don't like. Some carriers prohibit streaming video, and most take a dim view of P2P file sharing. Hosting a server using the data network is a big no-no. The point is these restrictions demonstrate clearly that carriers don't believe that customers are entitled to use the amount of data that is paid for in any way the customer desires. Fair or not, the carrier holds all the cards and they own the network so they make the rules.

Unpaid tethering makes you a thief »

Unpaid tethering makes you a thief

No matter how you justify it to yourself, if you enable unpaid tethering on a network that doesn't allow it you are a thief. That sounds harsh but it is the only way the carrier will view it when they crack down on such behavior. That day is coming with the carrier move to high-speed 4G networks, as demonstrated by AT&T recently notifying iPhone users that have been tethering without the paid hotspot service, that they were getting rolled automatically into the paid service. AT&T could probably have cancelled those customers under the terms of the contract, but is taking the smarter route of enrolling them in the paid hotspot service.

This move is significant for two reasons: it shows that AT&T (and no doubt other carriers) can tell with certainty when customers are tethering unofficially; they wouldn't risk a legal response otherwise. It's also important as it indicates that while the carrier has known about this activity for a while, it now believes the time has come to get paid as planned. Like it or not, the free ride is about to be over for those who tether without paying.

The carrier's POV

I don't like paying high fees with limited usage any more than anyone, but the carriers have a point about charging more for hotspot usage. While today's smartphones are pretty powerful and can consume a good bit of data on the network, there is little doubt that connecting multiple devices to the network results in a higher usage. Most customers are connecting laptops and tablets through the connection, and these use more data than phones. The result is a higher load on the data network the more tethering is in practice.

The carrier's other customers are negatively impacted the more it happens, and carriers believe they should get compensated to provide funds to beef up the network to keep up with increased demand. Customers are not reluctant to complain loudly when the network strain is too much, so I can see the carrier's point. All customers want good service no matter how they use the network, perhaps those that are paying their fair share even more than those who don't.

You can justify it to yourself anyway you want that you are not stealing, but the courts would likely view that differently. As soon as the argument is made that you violated the contract and the TOS, you deliberately changed your phone to allow unpaid tethering and then you repeatedly connected other devices to the carrier's network through the phone's connection, your credibility is pretty much shot. Fair or not doesn't enter into it, the facts speak volumes.

Pay up or risk exposure

You can try and justify it anyway you want, but unpaid tethering is theft of service from the carriers. Nobody likes the big bad carrier, but stealing is stealing no matter who is the victim. Eventually we'll hear about someone getting dragged into court for such tethering, and it's not going to end well for them. We don't pay for a certain amount of mobile data we can use however we want, no matter how much we wish it were so.

I believe the carriers are preparing to crack down on unofficial tethering, and some of them may not be as nice about it like the AT&T example mentioned. They can cancel the service outright, although the argument can be made that they don't want to cut paying customers. Most likely they will start making you pay, and I wouldn't be surprised if at least one carrier tries to make that retroactive. Sure customers will cry foul, but let's face it these customers have been taking what others are rightfully paying for so will anyone really care?

All of the major carriers in the U.S. have stated they will be moving to metered usage when 4G is fully rolled out. This means customers will be paying variable amounts each month based on actual data usage, and this is not as convenient as current billing even with data caps. I suspect that when metered usage billing is the norm, carriers might lighten up on tethering. What will be interesting to see is if the same customers who are tethering for free now stop the practice as it will definitely cost them a lot more in actual usage. No matter how it plays out the carriers will win in the end, as they always do.

Before you shoot the messenger rest assured I don't like this situation any more than you do. I have long wished for a system that lets me pay for an amount of data monthly that's not tied to a given device. I would be free to use this amount of data monthly using any device I own, the ideal case. That's not going to happen and I've come to terms with it. The sad fact is we must play by the rules in force at any given time or risk the consequences.

Image credit: Flickr user MadMup and Jason Hiner

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Topic: Mobility

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224 comments
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  • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

    I agree in the sense that, yes, technically you are breaching your contract by doing it, but it seems utterly perverse that you Americans are being forced to pay for a service that's free just about everywhere else in the world. I mean, what is so special about tethering in the US that you have to pay $40 a month for the privilege?<br><br>I use tethering here in Europe any time I'm stuck for a wi-fi connection. I don't pay extra for it and I don't abuse the service. Why can't the carriers on your side of the pond simply trust their users? <br><br>They are essentially making you pay twice for your data connection! As I see it, as long as you have a usage cap on your connection, tethering should not be an issue. Paying extra for an unlimited connection should also allow you to use unlimited tethering (fair use clauses would still apply, of course).<br><br>If this becomes widespread in Europe I can guarantee that one or more carriers will end up before the European courts.
    deejay12
    • Quite true..... the article writers corporateocracy streek is showing

      @deejay12

      The fact is that tethering if you are already buying a data plan should not be verboten, it should ALREADY DAMNED WELL BE PART OF THAT DATA PLAN!

      If it isn't? Then these companies are trying to do WAY too much separation.... but then again, that is the mean for American companies: separate EVERYTHING from EVERYTHING else and charge a fee for every single one! Even when they are really the SAME SERVICE!
      Lerianis10
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Lerianis10 But, but.........what about the PROFITS?
        thetwonkey
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        agreed. Like I said, James is technically correct in his article, but the real issue here is the lack of regulation that allows carriers and ISPs to engage in abusive, greedy business models like these.

        Maybe it's symptomatic of the technology outpacing the legislation but it definitely seems like there is insufficient protection for the consumer in this industry, and the only solution is for the media and public to continue to draw attention to it.

        After years of negative attention over here the EU finally got to grips with roaming charges and implemented some protection for the consumer. So it does work... just a question of everybody pulling in the right direction!
        deejay12
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @thatwonkey

        wonkey, it's time to say "F*** the profits! Do the right thing!" to these companies.
        That right thing means cable companies not overselling their services and then trying to put data caps on everyone to make up for that overselling, as well as trying to keep disruptive technologies like video streaming from coming to the fore.

        With phone companies, it means having unlimited minutes to call, unlimited texts (which use less bandwidth than calls) and a reasonable limit on data (10 gigs at least) for 40 dollars a month.

        We need to stop allowing these businesses to take America for a ride, when the facts are that the infrastructure has basically been paid for BY THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT AND TAXPAYERS through tax breaks and other programs.
        Lerianis10
      • Paying for tethering is an out right rip off

        If the government gets billed twice for the same service it is considered a felony in the US.<br><br>Why is it right for a cellprovider to bill me twice for the same service.<br><br>I'd say that service providers that charge twice for the same service are treading thin water.<br><br>If rooting was illegal, they would stand a chance. It is not. The phone is not licensed is owned by me. So if I use the phone how ever I wish, it should not be their concern. They have no right no infringe on my liberty until they press government to pass a law, like some other business bullies have in the past.
        Uralbas
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Lerianis10 Heres my argument, if I use my phones data connection to download an application to the SD card, then I use the phone as a mass storage device to copy that application from the phone then that should breech the contract as well, its not any different than if I were to enable the hotspot and download that file directly to my laptop. and I also agree that tethering should be included in the data plan, what happens to the data AFTER my phone has downloaded it is no business of carriers, and the phone 3g or fake 4g connection is only going to go so fast using it as a hotspot doesnt make the data connection any faster. if the carriers really cared about customer satisfaction then tethering would be included in your data plan, and I am sure most people would accept a reasonable increase (5 or 10 bucks a month extra) on their bill to be able to use such a service if all phones were enabled by default.
        nickdangerthirdi@...
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Lerianis10

        You can knock the American way if you want to, but considering how much money we pour into other countries both through our government and our companies, it seems more like your biting the hand that feeds you.

        Granted I'm sure you all could do just fine without us... and I tend to think our economy would apreciate the chance to find out.

        While I don't like being nickeled and dimed anymore than the next American, free enterprise puts food on my table, every night. Many socialist/state run systems cannot say the same.

        If only people could just be honest... as a whole. If...
        ShadowGIATL
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Lerianis10 - It's not the same service. One service is using data directly from the device and the other is using the device FOR data (causing more load on the network than just the device itself). Paying an extra $29.99 to tether devices up to a specific threshold (5GB) is not a bad deal considering the extra stress and load you are placing on the network.

        Now if we go to metered billing (aka a fixed charge per KB/MB/GB) then I would conceed that tethering should be allowed at no cost, either way someone is going to pay and I'd rather see those who wish to tether pay and those who do not, be exempt.
        JT82
    • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

      @deejay12

      Why? Because it's another way to soak the consumer for more money. That's why.
      Hallowed are the Ori
      • So a gun is against your head forcing your to tether?

        @Hallowed are the Ori

        You have no option but to tether?
        Bruizer
    • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

      This blog entry is utter crap.

      This is another attempt at making the companies look good. Stop trying to demonize people for taking advantage of their rights.
      ZazieLavender
      • Troll bait

        @ZazieLavender

        Of course it's crap. It's troll bait. There isn't any new content in it.
        Schoolboy Bob
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @ZazieLavender its not your right to use the data in any way you want. You contracted yourself to that clause when you signed. You think you have a right to breach your contract? Sorry, you don't. If you dont like it, lobby to get the contract changed.

        You are correct in saying that the company is demonising people with the language they use but you are missing the point of the article. It is not troll bait but a prompt for debate on the fairness of the service provider's contract. Big Picture. Open your mind.
        andmark
    • Utter nonsense (the blog that is)

      @deejay12

      Breaching a contract is NOT the same as stealing. It is simply not following ALL the stipulations in the contract. If you pay for the bandwidth, it is already yours to use. That CANNOT be stealing.
      Economister
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Economister But you arent using bandwith that is "yours" because you aren't using it in the manner prescribed. Therefore your argument doesn't hold water. Using bandwith that is not yours (aka tethering) because not only do you have traffic from the tethered device, you also have traffic from the device itself - creating extra traffic without paying and that IS stealing.
        JT82
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Economister
        Exactly!! It MAY be a breach of contract, but it is NOT stealing. James' analogy to cable theft fails miserably because in order to steal cable people had to splice into the line and employ a descrambler to decode an illegally accessed signal, which today would constitute both theft of service and circumvention.
        Tethering is more like the cable company said it was only offering you certain channels, including the prohibition in the contract and then not scrambling the channels and counting on all the major TVs to be programmed to only give you the right channels. Should you stumble upon a way to watch the freely given channels that you said you wouldn't watch, are you stealing? No.

        Are you in breach of your contract? Maybe, but I think they'd have a huge obstacle by way of their burden of proof: such as proving that you should have known that the service level wasn't unexpectly upped without your knowledge as part of some promotion.
        jeverettk
        • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

          As a side note, the providers that I've read about seem to be handling it properly: send a notice, "Hey we've noticed you're tethering. It's not part of your current plan. If you stop, then we won't charge you any extra. If you don't then we'll bump you to the appropriate plan and adjust your bill accordingly."
          jeverettk
      • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

        @Economister
        Similarly, if it can be shown that they knew of the use and continued to allow it, especially if they had internal policies in place for how much they considered fair use, THEN a court may just consider that the provider has ratified this new use and not only is it NOT stealing, but it's not a breach either.
        jeverettk
    • RE: The truth about tethering: Pay up or you are a thief

      @deejay12
      In some countries it could be viewed as an "unfair contractural term", it just needs someone to go to court on it, and we will get clarity.
      neilpost