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Can the network tell if you tether your PC to your phone?

Posted on 6 Feb 2013 at 15:46

Paul Ockenden explains how phone networks detect if you're using your phone's 3G connection with your PC

You’ll often see people explaining in various online forums that you don’t need to pay extra to tether your computer to your 3G phone, because the network can’t actually tell that you’re doing it.

Such advice used to be correct, but this is no longer true – more and more phones now send a signal to the network to ask for permission before enabling tethering, hotspot, or personal area network (PAN) modes.

If the network replies that this isn’t set up on your account, the function will be disabled on your phone. Whether or not you’re subject to this restriction depends on your network, phone and, indeed, on the version of the firmware in your phone.

For example, one of the phones in my toy box is a Blackberry 9790, and it’s on a cheapish monthly contract with T-Mobile. If I load old firmware onto this phone it will happily create a useful wireless hotspot, whereas if I upgrade to the latest OS, a check is carried out whenever I try to switch on the hotspot, and the function is disallowed.

I expect that in time all networks will support such signalling, as will most new phones. The days of stealth tethering are numbered!

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User comments

immoral, mental

if you pay £x for xGB of data what business is it of anyone's how you use that data?

By gavmeister on 6 Feb 2013

Is the blackberry bridge subject to this as well?

By JamesD29 on 7 Feb 2013

@James

Not really, because when you think about it Bridge is simply just attaching a tablet to the phone as a bigger screen. When you send an email using Bridge it simply stuffs it into the email client on the phone, which then sends it on to the network.

By PaulOckenden on 7 Feb 2013

Having said that...

...I wouldn't put it past the networks to try to charge extra for using Bridge! You know what they are like!

By PaulOckenden on 7 Feb 2013

I bought mine together so if and asked if this was going to be a problem. Will have to see what it's like when I come to renew my contract though.

By JamesD29 on 7 Feb 2013

Strange options

What is the problem with tethering? the phone companies are still getting there money no matter how you connect as when tethered you are still using your phone data limits.

By curiousclive on 8 Feb 2013

Thanks for the tip off

My contract is about to expire, and don't want this *b.s* to haunt me for another 24 mths.

Is this about-face due to network security concerns or just another scam to empty our wallets?

By technogeist on 9 Feb 2013

Thanks for the tip off

My contract is about to expire, and don't want this *b.s* to haunt me for another 24 mths.

Is this about-face due to network security concerns or just another scam to empty our wallets?

By technogeist on 9 Feb 2013

@gavmeister and curiousclive

I am guessing that people who tether use far more data than people who dont. you have to remember the carriers are all trying to provide as little as they can , charging as much as they can. Its extremely easy to burn through 500mb a day tethering. it is much harder to do this using just a phone. If I tether, my data usage shoots beyond 3gb a month. if I dont, and just use my phone, its more like 200mb a month. A v big difference. Obviously the carriers would rather you use 200mb of a 1gb allowance, that bump upto the limit.

By wyson on 9 Feb 2013

Windows updates were the problem on XP

Far too often I'd reach my monthly limit and have to pay for a booster. Tough if the downloads hadn't finished before the limit was reached. No way to get a booster once the limit had been exceeded. T-Mobile's automatic messages hardly ever alerted me before the limits were approaching.

By technogeist on 9 Feb 2013

Tethering fees - just another con

Charging to tether is a scandal. If you buy 1Gb of data per month, it should not make any difference whether you decide to use the phone or a device that is tethered to it. 1Gb of data is 1GBb of data. If I buy a ton of logs to burn in my fire place, what right would the supplier of the logs have to refuse to let me burn them in my woodburner! I called Three today to justify why they charge for tethering. The person I spoke to was unable to give me any logical reason other than “we’re in business”. QED. it’s con.

By JohnnyNobull on 12 Feb 2013

Tethering fees - just another con

Charging to tether is a scandal. If you buy 1Gb of data per month, it should not make any difference whether you decide to use the phone or a device that is tethered to it. 1Gb of data is 1GBb of data. If I buy a ton of logs to burn in my fire place, what right would the supplier of the logs have to refuse to let me burn them in my woodburner! I called Three today to justify why they charge for tethering. The person I spoke to was unable to give me any logical reason other than “we’re in business”. QED. it’s con.

By JohnnyNobull on 12 Feb 2013

Tethering fees - just another con

Charging to tether is a scandal. If you buy 1Gb of data per month, it should not make any difference whether you decide to use the phone or a device that is tethered to it. 1Gb of data is 1GBb of data. If I buy a ton of logs to burn in my fire place, what right would the supplier of the logs have to refuse to let me burn them in my woodburner! I called Three today to justify why they charge for tethering. The person I spoke to was unable to give me any logical reason other than “we’re in business”. QED. it’s con.

By JohnnyNobull on 12 Feb 2013

Tethering fees - just another con

Charging to tether is a scandal. If you buy 1Gb of data per month, it should not make any difference whether you decide to use the phone or a device that is tethered to it. 1Gb of data is 1GBb of data. If I buy a ton of logs to burn in my fire place, what right would the supplier of the logs have to refuse to let me burn them in my woodburner! I called Three today to justify why they charge for tethering. The person I spoke to was unable to give me any logical reason other than “we’re in business”. QED. it’s con.

By JohnnyNobull on 12 Feb 2013

Tethering fees - just another con

Charging to tether is a scandal. If you buy 1Gb of data per month, it should not make any difference whether you decide to use the phone or a device that is tethered to it. 1Gb of data is 1GBb of data. If I buy a ton of logs to burn in my fire place, what right would the supplier of the logs have to refuse to let me burn them in my woodburner! I called Three today to justify why they charge for tethering. The person I spoke to was unable to give me any logical reason other than “we’re in business”. QED. it’s con.

By JohnnyNobull on 12 Feb 2013

@JohnnyNobull

It is almost as much of a con as your multiple posting.

By curiousclive on 18 Feb 2013

@wyson

This is relevant if you have a very large or unlimited allowance, but for those on limits of around 500MB or less, it's irrelevant (as your own data usage clearly shows).

Name and shame the companies that charge extra on already limited allowance accounts I say...

By halsteadk on 20 Mar 2013

@wyson

That is untrue. I do however use my phone as my primary source of internet, our phone cables at the house need replacing before broadband can work. I often download allot of media on my phone, be it films, bbc iplayer, youtube, music. On my contract im with three who have the best deals. Im on the one plan so have their all you can eat data to devour my way through, as i use my galaxy s4 to tether my ps3 to and download my full games to which are often in the range of 6gb to 19gb in size. The most data ive used in a single month was around 90gb of data when i downloaded all the games you get with your psn plus service at once, which totaled a whopping 79gb alone, and the other 19gb's was just whatever data my phone had used. So it really does depend on what allowances you get with your phones deal.

I do think its wrong thwy wont let you tether it and have these plans that allow the use of tethering, because your alloted so many gb's (sometimes even shockingly just mb's!!) So it shouldnt matter what device you use that data with.

By tokko101 on 23 Jul 2013

Three All You Can Eat Ultimate Plans & Tethering

If you have a phone you can activate as a hot spot and you are on one of the Ultimate, All You Can Eat Data Plans, on Three, you will be able to Tether, but only to another Smart Phone or a Tablet (Kindle, etc). For a laptop or desktop computer, you will need to add Tethering to you plan, or to be on the One Plane. I have had both, the £13pm Ultimate plan and the One plan, so i have first hand experience on this issue. So if you only need to Tether to a tablet, the cheapest plan will do, for a Laptop, you are going to need the One Plan.

By Dj4iP on 9 Nov 2013

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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