AT&T has begun contacting smartphone customers who are using the mobile hotspot feature of phones without paying for the AT&T service. These customers are primarily iPhone owners who have jailbroken the phones to allow using the phone as a mobile hotspot, without paying AT&T for the privilege. That free ride is over, and most likely other carriers will follow AT&T's lead, so those who jailbreak or root your phone to allow such tethering better be ready. The tethering police are coming, and they know who you are.
One of the greatest events in mobile broadband history was the invention of the mobile hotspot. The ability to use a wireless phone connection to get multiple devices onto the web was a big move forward for mobile users. Carriers were quick to pick up on the value of mobile hotspots, and began offering, or rather allowing, customer phones to act as wireless modems for laptops and other devices. This came with a monthly fee to cover the additional bandwidth mobile hotspot users were grabbing. Intrepid wireless customers were quick to find ways around this official (read: billed) mobile hotspot service, on most every smartphone platform.
While Apple has only recently added the mobile hotspot feature to the iPhone, Android smartphone owners have enjoyed that feature since version 2.2 (Froyo) of the OS. Mobile hotspot, or tethering in Android parlance, still requires the permission of the carrier, usually at a monthly service fee of $20-$30. This mobile hotspot service is often capped, subjecting the user to potential overage fees if used heavily. This is one of the reasons (besides the belief that such service should be free) that owners have used to justify rooting or jailbreaking the phones to allow tethering outside the carrier's observation.
This move by AT&T to turn off the tethering tap is significant for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the carrier is making it crystal clear to customers that it can tell who is using the unauthorized tethering. Users have long felt that the carrier cannot tell when they are using such tethering, but AT&T begs to differ. Secondly, AT&T is not moving to punish those who have been tapping the network for free, they are satisfied with automatically (with no customer approval) adding the tethering service to the customer's account. You tether, you pay, is what the carrier is saying loudly and clearly.
The action by AT&T will almost certainly be copied by other carriers, given the rollout of 4G service by most. Whether you agree with the 4G terminology used by the carriers, the fact is connection speeds are on the increase, so tethering multiple devices to one mobile connection has the potential to use lots of bandwidth. I'm not defending the carriers, but if they were disposed to charge for tethering before, they are certainly champing at the bit to charge now with faster connection speeds.
So get ready all of you unauthorized tetherers, the tethering police are watching, and will be coming for you before long. While most carriers will be happy to simply roll you over to the paid service like AT&T, the fact is such usage is a breach of contract and they could just cut you off. This would be done without warning too, so it may be time to unroot those phones.
Image credit: Flickr user OregonDOT