Tethered Tethering? – by “Wesley W”

Many are noticing the shift toward tethered appliances.In his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop ItProfessor Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Iphone and similar devices may herald the end of the internet and the death of innovation. Sometimes the devices are engineered such that the user is not only unable to use applications not approved by the manufacturer, but is also unable to use the device for anything the manufacturer doesn’t want them to. In some cases it gives manufacturers the ability to change functionality remotely without much notice. Apple’s devices have often been the subject of the tethered appliance discussion due to their policies regarding the Iphone. But as Apple helps to usher in the era of tethered appliances it begs the question of who stands to benefit from this trend?

Usually only the manufacturer benefits from obliterating all ability to tinker with their product as they can then control what type of innovation occurs as they have to license any application before it can be bought by users. This allows the manufacturer to monopolize the market surrounding their product. So not only do you pay them for the device, you have to continue to pay them if you want applications for your device. (MMmmmm profits are delicious). For consumers that means more costs and less innovative technology.

This type of locking-down on the functionality of devices raises concerns for the ability to use your device as a modem for internet service, or “tethering”. This kind of “tethering” allows you to access the internet on a laptop by connecting it to an Iphone for example. AT&T provides phone service and internet access for Iphones and other smartphones on their 3G network. They charge for access to their network service. However “tethering” allows you to avoid paying AT&T for a separate wireless data plan for the second appliance by using the phone as a wireless modem. Although you’re only using the internet you’ve already paid for, AT&T may wish to charge extra for “tethering” capabilities. Can they do this? Maybe with the help of tethered appliances.

Imagine combining the desires of AT&T with a tethered appliance like Apple’s Iphone where they have the ability to prevent you from “tethering” without paying them to do so. Not so hard to imagine because that may not be too far from reality. In the past the Iphone’s OS allowed for users to relatively easy “unlock” their Iphone to allow it to function as a modem for other appliances for free. However this year’s recent Iphone OS update (3.1) has removed this workaround. AT&T and Apple are supposedly working on “fine-tuning” the network to support this service. It remains unclear whether it will be made available again or when it does whether it will be for free or if there will be costs attached. So far the tethering issue has been approached cautiously by AT&T as it adds strain to their 3G network and is a very big issue for users who booed when it was announced earlier this year that AT&T was not among the carriers that would support tethering for the 3G Iphones. Currently other types of phones, like a BlackBerry®, have pricing plans with AT&T that include “tethering” and cost between 30-60 dollars.

Currently the IPhone pricing plans do not have any “tethering” charge attached as AT&T is discouraging users from using the Iphone in this manner until they prepare their network for the increased traffic the millions of Iphone users could create.  No one is really sure about whether Apple and AT&T plan to charge users for the ability to “tether”. However it is clear that with Apple’s help the Iphone’s functionality can be taken away without much warning. If they find a way to make money from the high demand for this function will AT&T and Apple choose to do so? How much will it cost Iphone users? As of today, Iphone “tethering” is still unavailable. So it remains to be seen whether or not “tethering” will become a costly application of Apple’s newest tethered appliance.

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2 thoughts on “Tethered Tethering? – by “Wesley W”

  1. How much of internet-tethering is something that the public at large are familiar with? Personally, I’ve only come across it once, and that was two years ago. This raises another question– how many people actually see 3G, wireless, and telephone connections as the same thing (i.e., network connections)? One of AT&T (and other SPs)’s successes lies in that they’ve been able to differentiate connectivity services in the public consciousness; a phone is for calling people, an computer is for word-processing and research, a CD player is for playing music. Like a divide-and-conquer scenario, as long as individuals have different expectations of functionality per thing, corporations can pursue a more targeted strategy for each device. However, when devices have infinite potential, it’s much harder to strategize for the long term.

    For corporations to maintain control, it’s not just about tethering hardware capability– but also about tethering the public awareness and expectation to something that can be easily controlled.

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  2. Good question, Crystal. I’m not sure if that many people are aware of tethering. Personally, I think that AT&T should allow iPhone users to do this. The mandatory iPhone data plan is already expensive at $30/month, so if users have an iPhone and are forced to pay the data charge, why can’t they do what they want with it? AT&T’s argument that it will put extra strain on their network may be true, but as the biggest wireless network in the US, they can afford to upgrade, can’t they?

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