Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigated Verizon Wireless for stifling a very useful smart-phone trick. While laptops often need cables or Wi-Fi networks to access the Internet, phones can log on from just about anywhere. So if you find yourself with excellent cellular reception but no Wi-Fi – such as on a road trip, in an airport, or at home during a power outage – why not connect your two devices? Let your smart phone deliver Internet access to your computer. It's called "tethering."
Until last summer, when Verizon settled with the FCC for $1.25 million, tethering was costly. Phone companies locked away the feature behind an extra monthly fee. Even if you never went over your phone's data allowance, the carriers wanted $15 to $20 a month to let you pass that data along to your PC.
Now, thanks to new monthly plans and software, tethering is much less expensive. Verizon and AT&T revamped their data plans last summer. Both now focus on a large pool of data – anywhere from 250 megabytes to 10 gigabytes a month – that people can share across multiple devices and family members.
If you sign up for Verizon's Share Everything or AT&T's Mobile Share plans, tethering is free of charge – as long as you stick to your monthly data allotment. Most smart phones come with a built-in "mobile hotspot" feature. For example, iPhone 5 owners can find the toggle by opening "Settings" and then "Cellular." Once the hotspot is turned on, computers can connect to it as if it were a Wi-Fi network.
Sprint, T-Mobile, and older plans from Verizon and AT&T still charge about $20 a month to turn on a phone's mobile hotspot. However, because of the FCC settlement, Verizon won't charge for using third-party tethering applications. The Android app store has several good options with one-time fees, such as PdaNet ($15) and EasyTether ($10). EasyTether Lite costs nothing, but blocks secure websites and instant messengers.
Tether.com tried to release a third-party iPhone app to escape Verizon's extra fee. However, Apple rejected the app, as it has all tethering apps. (Apple has not publicly said why.) So the engineers at Tether found a way around Apple. They rigged up a way to tether an iPhone to a computer completely through the phone's Web browser. The service costs $30 a year and works with Apple, Android, and BlackBerry devices. You'll need to watch your monthly data usage, but Tether.com says that its service is completely aboveboard.
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.
[Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the December 10 issue of the Monitor weekly magazine.]