Why Tethering (Thus Rooting) Is the Killer App

by Dave Michels

Tethering is a very clever notion. It means the cell phone can act like a Mi-Fi. It combines its wireless Internet connectivity with its Wi-Fi connectivity and turns a smartphone into a portable access point. Since most people seem to have phones these days, it basically makes the Mi-Fi a cute gimmick of 2009 – and a functional relic.

I think Sprint EVO 4G was one of the first smart phones to really promote tethering. Sprint leveraged its fast 4G network and the popularity of the new Apple iPad along with its impressive EVO phone to make a surprisingly clear point. Not only could you save initial funds on the Wi-Fi version of the iPad, but realize recurring savings each month without an iPAD 3G plan AND get faster performance (4G instead of 3G) to boot.

3G wireless plans multiply when left unattended. Phones now have them, Pads want them, notebook 3G cards, and the Kindle or Nook too (the Kindle and Nook do not directly charge for 3G, but the wireless versions are less). Then come the facilities, like hotels and airports that still love to charge for Wi-Fi (why is that more expensive hotels charge for Wi-Fi and breakfast, and cheaper ones include it?). Some conferences I attend attempt to use the free hotel network which is typically a disaster, and it’s great to have an ace up the sleeve. Of all the things that I get nickel and dimed for, paying for Internet hurts the most. Free Internet is a God-Given right.

For various reasons, data plans are not dropping in price. This is a problem since our devices keep increasing, not declining. What is increasing is the availability and access to Wi-Fi. Both the Kindle and Nook are now available in Wi-Fi only versions. The iPad is available in a WiFi version and the Samsung Tab will be “Soon”.

The carrier’s don’t know what to make of tethering. But they seem to agree it should not be free. AT&T; is even double dipping, they have a plan that charges per bit instead of unlimited (reasonable), and then add on a tethering fee on top of that (unreasonable). Charging for tethering is inherently reasonable – it is a desirable feature that people are willing to pay for. But it is difficult to control as the technical components are all in a smartphone. Carriers have to effectively break the phone to restrict tethering.

Enter the notion of “rooting” or “Jailbreaking” phones. Rooting the phone removes carrier imposed restrictions. The rooting argument always goes something like this: “You can add whatever apps you like regardless of the carrier’s restrictions, apps such as tethering…” Tethering is pretty much the only application ever used in these arguments to root the phone (there are many more reasons on the iPhone as Apple has many more restrictions on their phones).

Tethering is different than unlocking. Unlocking removes the restrictions that bind a phone to a specific carrier. This is mostly relevant with AT&T; or Tmobile phones as they share the GSM standard along with most of the world’s carriers. It is particularly useful for international travelers that want to directly join (not roam) a local network while abroad. International rates are dropping. Unlocking is a baby step infraction, rooting is crossing over.

Because of tethering, the case to root is getting stronger. There are actually apps available to root a phone. Or, just purchase a rooted phone – several are available new in indirect channels. Of course, buying a phone third party means no subsidy, but that’s ok because some carriers are now offering lower rates for non subsidized phones.

There are a few downsides to a rooted phone. For one, the rooting process can go wrong and instead of a rooted phone one could end up with a “bricked” phone (means the phone now shares similar functionality of a brick). Other downsides include the loss of automatic carrier over-the-air updates and support from the carrier in general. The flip side is the rooted updates usually appear before the carrier roll-outs, and carriers are not well known for excellent support.

Wi-Fi networks are more available now than ever before. McDonalds, Starbucks and many other organizations are moving away from the pay for Wi-Fi models. But it isn’t everywhere, and there are common security issues with free Wi-Fi. Carrying a rooted phone with tethering means never paying for Wi-Fi again, be it an airport, a hotel, or coffee shop. It means being able to buy non 3G devices without compromise. Tethering is the killer app for smart phones.