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

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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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