The Great Tethering Debate

Verizon recently took some heat from the FCC for its hard stance on restricting tethering between mobile devices and other accessories.

A lot of readers (mostly non-lawyers) are interested in my view (preferably a legal opinion) on tethering. Dedicate fans of The Droid Lawyer blog will know I’ve discussed tethering, and even recommended a couple apps, and particularly FoxFi, but I haven’t given an actual, true, you-won’t-go-to-jail-if-you-tether stance. Nor will I. As every lawyer know, and hopefully you learned as a 1L, “the law” is never black or white. There’s always a shade of grey. Therefore, most lawyers are reluctant to talk in absolutes. Sure, we’ll talk in “I believes” or “I thinks”, but, unless your attorney wants a malpractice lawsuit, you’ll never hear, “guaranteed.”

So, with that caveat in place, I don’t believe you’ll ever go to jail because you tether your phone using apps available in Google Play. The bigger issue though is how will your carrier handle your use of tethering apps, and will your carrier drop your coverage because you’re tethering?

For me, tethering isn’t a concern. I switched to “Big Red’s” Share Everything plan, which includes tethering provisioning from Verizon. Though not every carrier has a share everything feature, I believe many will swarm that way in the very near future.

What many users don’t realize is that Verizon “got popped” by the FCC for its restrictions on band use and the way phones/applications access and use the LTE band, not on its policies regarding tethering. I suspect, because I’m not a communications law afficianado, that the two would probably be interpreted the same, but I can see a fine line of distinction.

That said, many states enacted statutes protecting consumers. User could, in theory, argue that any broad restrictions on how users deplete their data plan, is an unfair trade practice. Theoretically, the user could argue that they purchased “unlimited” data, and therefore, should be able to use that data how they see fit, whether it be accessing the spectrum via their mobile phone, or using their phone as a gateway for a PC to connect to the gateway. In truth, the rules and laws are probably more complicated and restrictive.

Fundamentally though, I think the issue of whether you provider will “bust” you because you tether without paying for the tethering “privilege” is as simple as reading your customer agreement. I suspect, because I haven’t poured over mine in awhile, that your agreement grants you a license to access the spectrum, that is subject to the provider’s guidelines and restrictions.

In the end, and without much resolution from me, I doubt, unless you’re a high data consumer, your wireless carrier will drop you because you’re using FoxFi or some other app to tether your device. As always though, I don’t know, and I always encourage you to pay for the services or apps.

I’m interested to know your thoughts on the subject, especially if you’re a communications or consumer law specialist. What do you think? Is the FCC settlement restricted solely to the way the devices access the LTE spectrum and not the way the carriers manage the access? Leave your comments, or shoot me an email.

11 Responses to The Great Tethering Debate

  1. I pay for tethering from VW ($30 a month)since January. I use it for my laptop when traveling and when not on the desktop at my rural upstate NY home (living on a dirt road only 8 miles from Cornell, I get great cell phone reception but on our yuppie hippie road, we cannot get DSL or wireless or cable because we have no telephone lines on our part of the road above ground and the wires vary. So I am using Broadband2Go via Virgin Mobile on Spring network for the desktop and am grandfathered in for unlimited at $40 a month with no contract). Anyway, I recently got an ASUS 3000 top of the line tablet. I found out about Foxfi and have been using it the few times I get a chance to get to the tablet (between part time teaching and full time freelance editing/writing business). I am grandfathered in also for unlimited VW data and pay $30 a month for that in addition to the tethering. I am wondering if (being such a good customer though I have been off contract since Nov. but paying insurance and tethering and data for my Android) I would be able to access Netflix through the Foxfi without a problem. It works for Internet but I did have trouble with Skype. Any suggestions for that? Another video chat so I could occasionally talk with my grand baby in Denver without having to resort to tethering via the laptop? I used Skype at my sister’s house in NJ where she has wireless throughout the house and the video was great on the ASUS. Kind of rambling, but I was searching to see if Foxfi would be limitless for films and video chats so I can actually start using the ASUS for stuff other than the great pictures it takes. I would probably only get to one or two films a month anyway!

    • Jill, thanks for the comment. If I understand you correctly, you’d like to ditch paid tethering with Verizon and just use FoxFi to tether cell and laptop to watch movies. If that’s not correct, let me know.

      The short answer: yes. There might be some connection issues, but I regularly tethered my phone to laptop with FoxFi to stream Netflix.

      Your connection issues with Skype and FoxFi are likely provider related, meaning your cellphone connection is slow. You don’t say whether you’re on a 3G or 4G LTE plan.

      Netflix has software that will “clean up” your movie if your connection is slow, as opposed to Skype, which chunks everything together causing jittery or blurry pictures.

      Good luck! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  2. From my understanding concerning tethering via a third party application is that Verizon can no longer block those third party applications because of the FCC, but if you have a grandfathered unlimited data plan, Verizon Wireless CAN charge you for that extra tethering data usage via the third party application. So those of us that have an unlimited data plan should be careful. I would have to guess, that if you do use a third party app to tether on an unlimited data plan, you may have to limit your usage to stay under the Verizon radar.

    • Esentially, no. The FCC sold C-block priviledges to Verizon for $9.4 Billion in 2008. There were caveats such as allowing the consumer to choose what means they wished to use it through. In 2011 the FCC began an investigation into the way Verizon was adminisering the band. In 2012 Verizon setteled the investigation by offering to pay $1.25 Million in fines to the FCC.

      Now that we once again have the freedom of choice to pick how we utilize our C-band (4G/LTE) priviledges, we do not have to use the tethering software that Verizon offers us for $30 each month. We are now free to choose any software on the market. The costs for independent software can range from a one time purchase to outright free.

      • I almost forgot to mention Lou, I am a granfathered ‘unlimited’ user as well, using Foxfi. I consume between 40 and 60 Gig each month, topping out at 110 Gig in one billing cycle. My daughter-in-law is a seamstress and constantly has netflix running at her work station. Niether one of us have any intention to cancel our plans which in turn guarantees verizon many years of customer loyalty.

        The number of subscribers that still have unrestricted data plans is few and far between. So much so that our overall impact is minimal. In support of the fact that our numbers are so low, have a look on Ebay for unrestricted accounts for sale through a process called “Assumtion of Responsibility”. I have been offered almost $1000 for mine.

          • I live just one quarter of a mile from DSL and three quarters of a mile from cable. But the 4G coverage exceeds what Verizon, Sprint & AT&T, (we’ll leave T- mobile out of this) advertise. The fact that my experiance as a ham radio operator might have something to do with the signal quality here ;). I have been quoted anywere from $14k to $40k just to get TW to run a grade 1 above ground cable to the house. Of course the also threw in that any neighbors jumping online within the first 3 years would have to split the cost. Um, no thank you.

            So I’m curious. When the FCC adopted the Jan 09 R&O that Verizon went ape about (Thank you Google!), I assume it was that little line on page 24 that went “…Accordingly, broadband providers may use reasonable network practices to manage their networks, but they must do so without violating our principles and should do so in a reasonably transparent manner.” refering to the 2005 adoption of the Internet Policy Statement, that both set them on their ear and causes you to hesitate?

            Oh, and yes I have a Winlink gateway and 7 computers piped through my connection. Movies are still nice on occation.

  3. The carriers are just blocking tethering to be activated. You can download the app but once it turns it on it overrides it and says ” you have not activated the mobile hotspot” turns it off and then asks if you want to see the prices for activating it. Sprint is giving the shaft for sure. paying for unlimited but limited to how they feel we should use it

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.