Why tethering is stupid and unnecessary

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Everybody's talking about tethering, which is the use of a cell phone to connect a laptop to the Internet. Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Palm phones have done it for years. Soon, iPhone and Android-based G1 phones will, too. But tethering is slow, awkward and lame. We have to do it for one reason only: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and other carriers are greedy, and have no vision.

I've been tethering for years and I hate it. It takes too long to set up. If you use a USB cable, it's awkward to manage at the airport while waiting for a flight (should I balance my phone on my carry-on bag or just put it on the floor?), and it adds one more thing you have to remember to pack. But most of all, it's just hideously slow. The data translation and transmission through USB or Bluetooth just wrecks the online experience.

Don't get me wrong. Tethering is great for people who want quick-and-dirty, rock-bottom cheap connectivity only occasionally, and without a small additional charge for mobile broadband electronics built in. But for most users, who would like to connect from anywhere using their existing cell phone data plan, tethering is a ridiculous, burdensome kludge created artificially by carrier greed.

Connecting via cell phone mobile broadband is much, much better when you do it directly from the laptop itself. But that requires a second, expensive data plan.

Have you ever wondered why?

The reason is that -- in case you hadn't noticed -- the carriers want to rip you off. These are the people who charge $2.49 for a ringtone based on a song you've already purchased on iTunes for 99 cents.

Some people actually pay $2.49 for ringtones because they really, really want to avoid the horrible ringtones that are provided free. But that's the business model: Make your customers suffer some indignity in order to coerce them to pay absurdly high rates for what they really want. That's what tethering is: It's the indignity carriers make you suffer in order to coerce you to pay astronomically high rates for a second data plan.

You should be able to pay a tiny extra fee for each device you add to your cell phone data plan -- say, an extra $5 per month, plus the higher number of minutes or bandwidth you end up using because your laptop is now connected at higher speed. Adding a second device to your existing plan is a simple administrative change that could easily be made by the carriers.

But the carriers are addicted to coercive pricing like crack. They want to force you to sign up for a separate, second plan -- or, as an alternative, you they can punish you by making you suffer through the inconvenience and bad performance of tethering.

How much extra do they want to charge you? The answer is complicated because carriers love confusing, arbitrary and unpredictable pricing plans. But typical mobile broadband data will set you back between $30 and $60. If you own the laptop for three years, that means you're going to typically pay between $1,000 and $2,000 just for the data -- probably more than the laptop itself.

That's why most users don't do it, and are grateful -- at least at first -- for mobile broadband.

But think about how awful that is. The carriers force you to choose between an acceptable experience, and pay more than you paid for your laptop, or a totally unacceptable experience, and pay only extra data charges for it.

The result, which is apparently acceptable to the carriers, is that you've got a tiny number of suckers (or business users with expense accounts) paying 10 times the price of what mobile broadband is worth, and the majority paying nothing extra and hating the experience.

The current carrier business model for laptop mobile broadband guarantees that everybody is miserable.

There once was a time when home Internet providers would charge you a second or third plan for each home PC you connected. It's hard to believe now, but they really did that.

It should be equally hard to believe that essentially the wireless carriers are doing the same thing. But worse. Carriers like AT&T are aggressively pushing for not just laptops, but digital cameras, GPS devices and other gadgets to also use mobile broadband. Do they believe we're going to pay between $30 and $60 per month for each device?

It's time the carriers stop this punish-or-gouge model, and re-write their own arbitrary rules for data contracts. Accelerate, rather than smother, this potentially lucrative business by making the additional cost of adding another device to a data plan reasonable, rather than absurd.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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