Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Search of Affordable Tethering

My family and I are planning our summer vacation in an area that does not have immediate access to high speed internet. In the old days, I used to maintain a dial-up account so I could check my Email when I was traveling and couldn't find a convenient alternative. It was slow, but it worked. My last dial-up account was $5.00 per month, and I only kept it for a few months at a time.

My latest MacBook doesn't have a built-in modem, so I've been looking for something more convenient. I considered an iPhone, but I'm much more comfortable with a laptop keyboard and screen, AT&T hasn't delivered tethering yet, and I am not thrilled about a two year contract at $70/month for the two weeks a year I really want to use this. When it became time to look for a new cell phone, I was intrigued by reports of successful tethering with T-Mobile (my preferred carrier).

After some research, I've found a solution that works reasonably well, but there seems to be some deliberate obfuscation to keep others from finding it. Here's what I learned.

At the time of this writing, T-Mobile sells one phone that can take advantage of high speed 3G tethering, a Sony Ericsson TM506. Shortly after its introduction last September (2008), users got so excited about the tethering performance T-Mobile got cold feet. As the number 4 carrier, they are frequency constrained in some areas and didn't want power users sucking up precious bandwidth needed to serve more customers (unless they were paying for that privilege). They announced that tethering was not supported and modified the TM506 firmware to hide the tethering feature.

I've always liked the user interface and Mac support on SE phones, so I began reading the forums to see if there was more to the story. Indeed there is. Tethering works just fine on the Mac if you have a corresponding data plan and it was not terribly difficult to configure. Like so many things, there are many ways of looking at this.
  1. T-Mobile lists "High speed data with EDGE" as a feature on many of their phones, and customers have been happily tethering for years. The word on the street is they wont block it but can throttle you to EDGE speeds if you exceed your data plan quota. T-Mobile cleverly redefined "unlimited web" to mean you can access any site on the web directly, but you still have a bandwidth quota depending on your plan.
  2. Now that they are rolling out 3G, T-Mobile has begun offering a separate USB Laptop Stick with its own $60/month data plan (following their rivals), but this is serious overkill for my needs (plus 3G isn't widely available yet). I just want to get my Email on those rare occasions when WiFi isn't available. Perhaps 10 days a year.
  3. T-Mobile is concerned that extensive 3G tethering could adversely effect their network, so does not want to encourage it. If you ask, they'll respond "not supported" or "don't do it."
There appears to be some deliberate obfuscation as carriers scramble to see what the market will bear. Nobody is likely to mind if you check your Email a few times a year and prefer the screen and keyboard of your laptop, but if you start pulling 100s of MB per day using 3G, this could be a problem they don't want to deal with.

The phone actually includes a T-Mobile Email client, but it's designed to charge you 20 cents per message like SMS unless you buy a messaging bundle. The phone also includes a built-in GPS receiver and Telenav service you can enable for $10/month. You are disabled from installing Google Maps or GMail for mobile directly, but you can download them to your computer, copy to your phone, and then use the File Manager to install them, or point your phones browser at and download the Java (J2ME) versions.

The SE TM506 lists for $160 (no contract price), and I added a $30/month voice plan, and $10/month unlimited web for phones data plan. T-Mobile gave me a 12% discount off my monthly plan for being a AAA member. I could have gotten the phone for $130 less by agreeing to a two year contract, but I prefer the idea that I'll keep the plan only if it's meeting my needs. I can cancel at any time and revert to pay-as-you-go for 10 cents a minute. Since I'm not under contract, T-Mobile has a little more incentive to keep me happy.

Anyway, here's what I did that worked. First, download the TM506 iSync plugin from here (this installs a Sony Ericsson modem script and iSync plugin). Next, I paired the phone over Bluetooth and selected the services I wanted (sync contacts, use phone as modem, etc.).

Network Preferences:

TM506 EDGE via Bluetooth

TM506 EDGE via USB
The drop in latency makes this noticeably faster. Adequate for checking Email or a few specific web pages, but not great for general surfing. This is what I expect to use on vacation.

TM506 3G via Bluetooth

TM506 3G via USB

The upload speed actually dropped a little possibly due to congestion. 3G tethering is quite usable in either case. Typical web pages are a few seconds slower, but not to the point of being bothersome. T-Mobile's 3G coverage is more limited than AT&T, but it's nice to see they are making progress (YMMV).

Regardless of whether you use the TM506 for tethering, it's not a bad phone. The call quality is surprisingly good, close to that of a conventional cordless phone. The screen is bright, sharp, and offers a reasonable user interface with only a modest lag in most cases. The keys are well spaced and easy to use. Reception seems good even in weak signal areas. Ring tones are loud and clear, and you can add your own by copying mp3 files to the phone.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review.I am trying to go cheap by replacing my comcast cable with a more portable internet device to do my school work and surf the net on my computer, and I currently have an unlimited plan with t-mobile and this phone is the cheapest 3G capable phone that offers tethering. So I might be giving this phone a test drive in a few months and save me $70 on my cable bill