I just bought a new smartphone, and I want to tether it to my laptop when I'm traveling and visiting friends. It won't be too often, so I'd really rather not pay my wireless carrier for a tethering plan. How can I tether my phone to my laptop without my carrier knowing about it?
4G Wants To Be Free
Use a Can of Soup to Make a Lazy Chicken Pot Pie
Photo by Preetam Rai.
Dear 4G Wants To Be Free,
We understand where you're coming from. Most smartphones have the ability to serve as wireless hotspots built into their mobile OSes and their hardware without any added cost, but wireless carriers know that they can charge for the functionality, so they do.
Before we go any further, we should point out one thing: tethering your phone without a plan from your carrier could be a violation of your carrier's terms of service agreement, and can result in either you having to pay hefty overages for the data you use while tethering, or in extreme cases can wind up getting your account canceled if your carrier finds out. Most carriers know it's not in their best interest to cut off a paying customer who wants to tether their phone however, and they'll usually just send you a letter to say "hey, we noticed you're tethering, and if you keep it up, we'll automatically enroll you in a plan with a monthly charge to cover your usage."
If you want to avoid that happening to you, here are some ways to make sure you don't attract attention, and if you do, some ways to go legit.
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Consider Your Data Plan
One of the telltale signs to your carrier that you've probably been tethering your phone is if you start racking up massive overage charges in a very short period of time. If your data plan caps you at 2GB/month, and you normally use less than one, but suddenly start blowing through your cap on a regular basis, one of the best things you can do is bump up your data plan to a level appropriate for the amount of data you're using. You're not exactly hiding anything here and you're not covering your tracks, but you'll save yourself money in the long run and you're moving your data plan to an appropriate level for the amount of data you actually use, thus drawing less attention to your activities.
If you can get into an unlimited plan, that's one great way to make sure that your carrier doesn't start to wonder about your data usage habits because or a recent rash of plan overages. Unfortunately, more and more carriers are shying away from unlimited plans, but if you can get onto one, it may be worth it depending on how much tethering you plan to do. Again, it's worth noting that making sure your data plan includes whatever data you may use by occasionally tethering to your laptop is only a way to avoid drawing attention to yourself - it doesn't actually do anything to cover your tracks.
Don't Use Too Much
In the same vein as making sure your data plan accommodates the data used while tethering, it's also important to not use too much in general. Since you said you only plan to tether occasionally, like when you're traveling or visiting friends, it's important to try and use Wi-Fi if it's available (and use a VPN to secure your connection) instead of just tethering because you can. The best way to make sure you don't draw attention to yourself is, of course, to not do it—or do it so irregularly that your carrier won't consider your data usage pattens abnormal or worth closer scrutiny.
Use the Right Apps
Another way to make sure you don't draw too much attention to yourself while tethering is to avoid using the tethering apps that your wireless carrier is on the lookout for. It may sound obvious, but some AT&T users report that they were busted by AT&T when they started using the MyWi tethering app partially because it simulates the phone's built-in tethering functionality, and is easy for your carrier to spot. PC World explains that many apps simply unlock and turn on the phone's built-in tethering features, and apps that do this are the easiest to detect from a carrier's perspective.
Instead, consider an app like PdaNet, which gets the job done, connects your phone to your laptop differently, and also gives you the option to hide your tethering activity from your carrier. PdaNet isn't the only app that promises to hide tethering activity from your carrier, but it's definitely one of the best and most well-known. Most carriers are worried enough about PdaNet and apps like it that they do to great lengths to keep you from installing them. Android users have to side-load the app because carriers have asked Google to hide the app from their users in the market, and iOS users all have to jailbreak to get them.
When All Else Fails, Go Legit
Even apps that promise to hide your tethering activity from your carrier can only do so much. Bumping up your data plan and only tethering when you absolutely have to help, but they only do so much as well. In the end, you're playing a cat-and-mouse game with your carrier that can at any time end up with you getting a text message or a letter from your carrier warning you that they know you've been tethering your phone for free and that if you keep it up, they'll enroll you in a tethering plan.
In cases like this, it may just be worth it to go ahead and sign up for a tethering plan so you can do it whenever you choose and not worry about overages or trying to hide from your carrier. Plus, once you're signed up, your carrier will give you tools to help you do it—which you can promptly ditch and go back to tethering the way you choose.
Also, if you really want mobile wireless access but you don't want to pay your wireless carrier more than you already do, getting a warning notice may be a good opportunity to investigate mobile hotspots and USB modems from other carriers that offer more speed for your money than tethering to your phone. For example, if you're tethering to your phone on AT&T and have a hard time keeping a data connection at all, you may consider a 4G USB modem from Verizon Wireless or a portable MiFi hotspot from T-Mobile. Many even offer pay-as-you-go or prepaid plans so you only pay for what you use, as opposed to keeping a rolling monthly contract, which could wind up costing you less than a tethering plan or new contract.
Ultimately though, if you want the ability to go above-board with your tethering, it may behoove you to just go legit and not worry about it anymore. If you don't want to pay for it because you hate your carrier, branch out and sign up with another one you may hate slightly less.
Godspeed: Your Mileage May Vary
One thing that's important to remember is that if you do attract the attention of your carrier, they have more advanced tools to examine your usage patterns, bandwidth utilization, and data traffic to determine whether you're tethering than you have tools to hide your activities. The best thing you can do is try to manage your usage so you never draw that attention in the first place, and use the tethering apps that don't automatically sound the alarm to your carrier's network management teams that you're tethering without a plan. Keep in mind though that even though you do all of this, you may be busted eventually anyway, and you'll have to decide whether you want to keep pushing your luck, spend money on a tethering plan, or find someone else to give your mobile wireless business to. That said, good luck, and let us know how it goes! Photo by Paul Irish.
PS - Do you feel tethering to your smartphone should be free? Do you have a preferred tethering app that you would suggest to 4G Wants To Be Free? Have your say in the comments below.