"Smart" phones are cool. Phones like the iPhone or BlackBerry let you install both free and paid applications on them that provide some cool or useful (hopefully both) functionality. Let me point out one of the most popular phrases of 2009 (according to a University of Princeton survey): "There's an app for that" -Apple, referring to their iPhone. And cool it is...

Over the past decade, there have been many technological changes, from the prevalence of PDAs to laptops to Netbooks to Smart Phones. Look out, because I don't think things are done evolving quite yet. There are plans for a multi-touch tablet computer revolution. Could we see an end of the computer "mouse" as we know it?

tether for PC

tether for PC

The topic of this post is about a little slice of technology called cell phone "modem tethering". You may have heard of this but for those that haven't. this is where you use the Internet connection provided by your wireless phone to connect to your PC or laptop. Instead of a WiFi or Ethernet connection to a router, DSL, or even dial-up connection, the cell modem principle allows you to venture off to places where you would not normally have an Internet connection available for e-mail or web browsing.

Keep in mind that the speeds of modem tethering are nothing to brag about. On a good day, it is definitely better than dial-up speeds (maybe 20KB/s or so). But the real advantage is the Internet anywhere you have a wireless broadband signal. Great if you have to travel a lot, or sit in the car with your laptop. Even better is that your phone can typically charge while it is being used for tethering, as long as you use a USB connection and not a Bluetooth one.

Web browsing on a cell phone isn't the fastest, and with a small screen and usually awkward keyboard layout or buttons, there are certain limitations to this. It does serve its purpose, however, for checking email or looking up a word or fact on Google...

By using cell modem tethering, you can browse the web using your laptop or desktop computer, without having to pay ISP (Internet Service Provider) charges. You DO have to pay for data access through your cell service provider; such plan add-ons rarely cost you more than $15 a month for unlimited data. This "unlimited" volume of data is often capped to 5GB, or 5 Gigabytes of data per month, but most people won't transfer this much data, unless they're downloading music, videos, software, etc. Still, with the speed at which it operates, it would take a long time to reach 5GB of data. Most users, like myself, would probably save this activity for when a conventional and faster connection was available.

Modem tethering is not available on all phones, nor through all service providers. Some providers, like Sprint, want to charge you an additional $15 per month ON TOP of your data plan for tethering privatizes. They want you to use THEIR software to do this so they can be in control. No thanks. Power to the People!

So the basic concept is that you install a small application on your phone, and then one on your laptop or desktop computer. Installation on your phone is simple, as long as application installation is supported. Installation on your laptop is equally as simple, however you'll notice that these programs typically create or require you to manually create a new virtual "Tether" connection in your Network Connections (in Windows) folder. I'm not sure what happens on a Mac... (comments welcome)

Blackberry Curve 8330

Blackberry Curve 8330

I have a BlackBerry Curve 8330, and after some careful research and trial-and-error, I found what I consider to be the best program for tethering, which is simply called tether. I bought it throught the BlackBerry App Store for $24.95, but as of 10Jan2010, the price has gone back up to $49.95. Note that this is a one-time cost, and you DON'T have to pay extra every month for a tethering plan through your cell provider. You do still have to pay for data, but even at $15 a month for unlimited data, after 3 months, the app pays for itself...

This program was once (and sometimes still is) referred to as TetherBerry. Once tethered, you can still check email on your phone, make phone calls and do other things. Simply start the app on your phone or laptop (it doesn't make a difference which one first), select the method by which to connect (USB or even Bluetooth!), and click connect. Then go to the other device and do the same thing. Note that you will want to disable your other network connections, if there are any active ones, prior to this. Once connected, surf away! When you are done, simply exit the app on either device and it will close on the other one automatically. This is a REALLY nice feature to have, especially if you decided to use your phone for other purposes while tethering. You can simply exit the app on your laptop, and the phone one will close too without having to navigate on your phone to it.

I tried a trial of one other phone tethering program called Shark Modem by Mobishark which was similar but nowhere near as refined and well planned out as tether. You had to start and stop the app on each side every time, it was prone to application crashes and even hung up the operating system on my BlackBerry. You also typically have to put in some funky coinfiguration info into a new Network Connection that you must manually create. To top it off, the app costs twice as much as tether!

To summarize, here is a modem tethering checklist of considerations:

  1. Check to see if your phone is capable of tethering and that you can install apps such as tether on it. (The tether web site has a list of compatible devices to help with this.)
  2. You can download a free trial of tether to see if it will work well for you before purchasing it (big plus!)
  3. Look up or contact your cell provider to see what your data limit is. I would strongly suggest going with the unlimited data plan to be safe as overage charges can be very expensive.
  4. Start enjoying the Internet everywhere!

Currently, comments are welcome on this article, especially from Mac users who have tried or are using tether.


P.S. If you're interested in more information, check out my previous article from March 2009 on modem tethering for free, but be aware that many cell service providers have since changed their plans so they may charge extra for tethering!