Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, computers went on-net – whether “on net” was “the Internet”, CompuServe, or (for the old-timers) something like FIDOnet – with a device called a “modem”. (Modems got their name because they MOdulated and DEModulated analog telephone signals to transmit binary data.)

In  these days of digital high-speed broadband and FIOS, a genuine “mo-dem” is somewhat of an ancient relic in the vernacular. However, if you have a smartphone, it can act as an analog (no pun intended) of an old-school telephony modem for getting your laptop onto the Internet when there is no other access available.

Tethering As A Service

Using your smartphone to provide Internet access for a USB or Bluetooth connected laptop is called “tethering”. Most carriers are more than happy to allow you to tether, for a fee of course. Why are they charging? Because they can! But more pragmatically, charging for the tether service ensures that you are using up your bandwidth “legally”. They have figured that you might use considerably more bandwidth via your tethered laptop than you would on the phone, so they feel they must be compensated for this potential excess.

With AT&T, it is $15/mo on top of your phone’s DataPro plan. With Verizon, it’s $15/$30 extra, depending on the data plan. Sprint is also $30 more, but is rumored to ban tethering in 2010 (as T-Mobile has already done).

Assuming it is offered by your carrier, yes, it is another tax on your wallet. But it is still cheaper than getting a $60/mo PCMCIA or USB “AirCard” for your laptop.

Want to do it even more cheaply?

Tethering Software

For a one-time cost, software can be added to your smartphone that enables tethering without the complicit knowledge of your carrier.

  • For Blackberry, there is the $25 TetherBerry (aka Tether) or PDAnet for $29.
  • For Android, there is PDAnet ($25). “Tether” is in beta.
  • For Windows Mobile, yup, PDAnet ($34).
  • For PalmOS, PDAnet ($34) is still a candidate.
  • Palm webOS does not currently allow direct tethering, but Verizon is giving away the Mobile HotSpot service or you can get the $14 MyTether. Both turn the webOS phone into a WiFi router to which a laptop may connect.
  • For iPhone, well… if you want to jailbreak your phone, you can buy (for $29) a version of PDAnet. Or you can try (for free) the hack of loading a new version of the service config file that activates the built-in tether option of the v3 iOS. (Operation under v4 is still getting the bugs worked out.)

Please note that because of the sensitivity carriers have about illicit bandwidth usage, none of the tether software options should be considered a guarantee. A day after you buy the software, your carrier could decide to block you.  Caveat emptor!