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iTether Approved, then Pulled

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[Update: As I was putting the finishing touches on this article, Apple woke up and pulled iTether from the App Store, citing load on the carrier network. That’s a truly lame excuse, since carriers are happy to charge customers for the extra usage; worse, the iTether developers claim that their average user consumes less than 200 MB per month. The developers also say that they were entirely upfront with Apple about the purpose of the app, even providing Apple a video of how it worked. Nevertheless, I downloaded and tested the app, and wrote the article, so you can read what would have been true if Apple hadn’t gotten all protectionist on us. Those who bought the app before it was pulled can continue using it.]

For many of us, being able to tether a Mac or iPad to an iPhone to share the iPhone’s 3G-based Internet connection would be compelling, if only we needed it regularly. For the occasional quick use, paying for the necessary data tethering plan is simply overkill.

In the United States, AT&T charges $45 per month for the DataPro 4GB plan, which provides 4 GB of data with tethering (additional gigabytes are $10 each). On Verizon Wireless, tethering (the Mobile Hotspot feature) costs $20 on top of an existing data plan (the cheapest is $30 per month for 2 GB) and includes an additional 2 GB. So we’re talking an additional $20 to $30 per month, just to share your Internet connection, regardless of whether you even need the extra few gigabytes that come with the tethering connection.

If you’re as offended as we are by these unnecessary charges — why can’t we just be charged for how much data we use, regardless of how we use it? — there’s a new option, iTether.

iTether, an iOS app that works hand-in-hand with special Mac or Windows software, enables tethering for a single $14.99 fee. What’s surprising about iTether is not that it works, though it does, but that it was approved for sale in the App Store, given Apple’s protectionist policies toward apps that compete with built-in features. Nevertheless, the company behind iTether, called Tether, has been selling BlackBerry and Android versions of the software for several years, so it seems unlikely that Apple could have failed to realize what the app does.

That said, iTether isn’t quite what you might expect. It works only over a USB connection, so you can’t use it directly with an iPad. The Android version of Tether has the same limitation, though the BlackBerry version can also work via Bluetooth.

The free Mac OS X software is tiny — only about 1.5 MB — but Tether’s Web site was so overwhelmed with traffic that I had to ask a friend for a copy. It installs several kernel extensions in /System/Extensions, along with the Tether application in /Applications. It also creates an Ethernet (en4) adapter in the Network preference pane (you may get a different number).

Once it’s installed, using iTether was easy. I made sure my MacBook was disconnected from my Ethernet network and I turned off Wi-Fi on both the MacBook and the iPhone, to ensure I was getting the correct results. Then I launched the Tether application on my MacBook and tapped the iTether app on my iPhone. The two look quite similar, showing some basic data transfer states and connection status. The Tether application automatically enabled the Ethernet (en4) network adapter, and the iTether app on the iPhone made the connection to the Internet via 3G.


I didn’t perform extensive testing, since I pay for only 200 MB of data per month, but I had no trouble using Safari to load Web pages. I even did a speed test and found that I was getting about 1.5 Mbps down and 600 Kbps up, which isn’t bad.

But what about my Wi-Fi iPad? Harking back to the days when networking was far funkier, I gleefully opened the Sharing preference pane and turned on Internet Sharing to share the Internet connection coming in on Ethernet (en4) out via Wi-Fi. Then I forced both my iPad and my Mac Pro to connect to this new network, and lo and behold, it all worked.

(To be fair, this is a slightly abbreviated version of actual events, since I had to restart my MacBook to get past Mac OS X 10.7 Lion being slow, and I had to remember that I wanted Internet Sharing instead of a computer-to-computer network, and I had to try Internet Sharing twice to get the Mac Pro and iPad to pick up IP addresses properly, and so on. It was fiddly, but funky networking always is.)

To maintain the Internet connection, the Tether application on the Mac had to stay running, and the iTether app on the iPhone had to remain the frontmost app. It was all too easy to forget that and switch to another app on the iPhone, thus breaking the connection, but it reconnected well.

The big unknown is if carriers will notice that their customers are using it to avoid paying for tethering. I don’t have a sense of whether or not they can unpack the network traffic sufficiently to determine that, but it might be possible. I’ve seen carriers threaten to switch customers to tethering plans automatically in the past. Or, it may be one of those situations where they are unlikely to notice if you use iTether sparingly enough to avoid setting off warning bells.

 

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Comments about iTether Approved, then Pulled
(Comments are closed.)

Annonymous  2011-11-29 20:31
Handylight is still in the store..
http://bit.ly/vWmdIg
Chuck Shotton  2011-11-29 20:54
NO! The original Handy Light app was pulled last year. Anything in the app store with that name now is a SCAM. Do not buy it.
Michael Paine  2011-11-30 12:47
Am I reading the article date correct - November 2011? In Australia I have been using the built-in Personal Hotspot to tether my Macbook and iPad2 for most of the year. In the USA this seems to be an issue with the carriers and iTether was an attempt to circumvent it.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-11-30 12:58
So in Australia you're not charged extra for tethering?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-11-30 13:07
I researched this for the Take Control books on iOS networking and security. Most carriers include tethering as a free option with all available data plans. Some carriers limit iPhone service (including any tethered data use) to a monthly maximum and throttle thereafter. So you get 5 GB and then 56 Kbps after that!

But other carriers require that you have a minimum data service plan to turn on tethering, or that you pay for overages.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-11-30 15:06
Personal Hotspot has been available in the U.S. since iOS 4.0 (called Internet Tethering in 4.0 and 4.1, and Personal Hotspot in 4.2, if I recall right).

It's just not available without paying a U.S. carrier a fee for the privilege.
M. Perry  2011-12-01 16:18
Years ago, after a clumsy bit of identity theft, I looked into getting my phone number unlisted. I was surprised that cost $5 a month.

A friend who'd worked in rate setting for a phone company tried to offer an excuse. I didn't buy her excuse, but I did realize what was going on.

State regulators have items they feel they must deliver. For phones, it was cheap basic landline. To get that, they allowed phone companies to overcharge for other services. At one time, unlisted numbers were used by the rich and famous, hence the high charge.

That same illogical mindset pervades the cellular industry. They don't think in terms of sensible pricing. They look for ways to overcharge. And since they all think the same, we have all these illogical pricing schemes, equivalents of $5/month for an unlisted number.

One reason I oppose the T-Mobile merger is that the company shows a willingness to break with this predatory pricing. If the merger fails, they may do even more.
I'm an Apple Shareholder, and "the Mac guy" at work. But Apple's nanny attitude with the iOS as well as the fact that they allow the US phone carriers to dictate what software appears in the Apple Store is the #1 reason I've got a Razor on order (will be rooted and WiFi hotspot/tethered, Swype'd, Skype'd and Google Voice'd shortly thereafter avoiding many of the carrier's uneccessary and less-user friendly fees/"services").

Apple fan/user/promotor since the IIe, iOS is great, but in this realm Apple stifles innovation and lowering the cost of business (unless you jailbreak which is a bit dodgier software-wise and legally than rooting). Neither Apple nor the Cell Phone carriers should be dictating how you use or connect a device you've paid for, or an amount of data you've paid to receive every month, especially at the detriment of a creative company. Makes me think of anti trust...
James Bailey  2011-12-06 07:48
If you are a developer or know one, you can get substantially the same functionality for free.

git clone git://github.com/tcurdt/iProxy.git

Details here: https://github.com/tcurdt/iProxy/wiki

I haven't set it up yet but it looks serviceable.
ptw-tidbits  2011-12-06 16:57
Adam: Perhaps little known, but in the US on AT&T you can add/remove the data plan that supports tethering and pro-rate the cost by specifying start/end dates.

Basically, on AT&T, to actively use tethering, you must have the 4GB/mo plan active. Once you are done, you can revert to your old data plan and pro-rate the tethering end date.

If you normally use a very low data plan, there is a chance that by the end of the billing period you may exceed the total data permitted by your normal plan plus the pro-rated extent of the tethering plan. If that is the case, you can simply add back a higher data plan to avoid any overage fees.

I've been using this strategy for some time now since I usually only need to tether on an occasional basis and have never paid the total $45/mo. tethering fee.

If somebody wanted to make an iPhone app that would screen-scrape the AT&T billing site and automatically turn on/off the tethering plan when you needed it, they would surely not be pulled. :P
ptw-tidbits  2011-12-06 16:58
P.S.,

Of course, now that I've said that, AT&T will probably change this policy.

P.P.S.,

I don't know if you can do the same on Verizon. It would be nice to know if there are Verizon users out there?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-07 05:37
That's an interesting strategy - thanks for sharing it. I agree that an app that would let you set dates for the termination so as to prevent your forgetting would be a boon. Anyone seen anything like that?