Daniel Eran Dilger
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Ideas for Apple: AirPort Mobile Tethering

Daniel Eran Dilger
The previous segment looked at how Apple is uniquely situated to deploy ubiquitous WiFi by offering iTunes affiliate commissions to encourage casual AirPort sharing. A second issue Apple is poised to solve relates to iPhone tethering. Here’s what the current problem is and how it could be solved.

Ideas for Apple: AirPort Mobile
AT&T doesn’t allow tethering on the iPhone, or other phones it supports apart from some that come with special data plans. Tethering shares the mobile’s network access with a computer. The iPhone’s increased data use is already taxing AT&T’s network, particularly in urban areas where the increased demand for data service combines with limited data capacity.

At last year’s Macworld Expo, the high number of iPhones in attendance destroyed any capacity to receive even an EDGE signal.

AT&T barely has the current ability to support unlimited 3G data for the millions of iPhone 3Gs that have been sold. Attempting to offer free, all you can eat access for an attached laptop would be far beyond feasible, as laptops can easily consume far more bandwidth than a mobile phone, thanks to the ability to run many concurrent applications, none of which were designed to limit bandwidth consumption.

The Easy Part of the Problem

Making tethering work is easy. Apple already can support certain mobile phones plugged in via a USB cable, recognizing them as phone modem and using their mobile network connection to connect to the Internet.

It’s also already possible to connect over Bluetooth using a phone that supports a dial up networking profile. Thirdly, one can set up a WiFi relay and share a mobile connection with a laptop; this is what the NetShare app momentarily offered before Apple pulled it from the App Store.

None of these things are technical barriers to Apple, because it already supports all of them. The problem is one of bandwidth. Without AT&T’s buy-in and support, Apple can’t allow iPhones to access the network, leaving Macs strangely unable to do something that’s easy to do if you have an EVDO phone or even a GSM phone on certain other carriers.

Solving the Difficult Part.

The utility of being able to casually check email or perform some other network action on the desktop that can’t be done directly on the iPhone is too great to resist not solving. What Apple needs to do is make it cost effective to use the mobile network via an iPhone, but cost prohibitive to abuse it. Fortunately, Apple has all the access it needs to deliver this.

Tethering needs micropayment system that allows users to initiate a simple connection and buy a cheap block of access. Market pricing “excess” data access could enable users to jump on for an hour to accomplish a task at a trivial cost of something like 99 cents an hour or for a certain amount of data transfer.

A smart network could even sense network congestion and allow free tethering in areas where network demand would have no impact, but charge minor prime time fees to throttle use while many people were trying to use the network.

With such a system in place, Apple could deliver a sophisticated automatic connection system that allowed mobile systems to wirelessly connect to and relay networking through the iPhone, presenting a cost menu when needed that would charge the fee to the user’s iTunes account or alternatively add a fee to their AT&T bill if the phone company has the savvy to handle additional charges.

Such a pay per use system would benefit users who have no need for tethering, allow users who want to casually tether to do so a minor extra cost, and preclude a few people from taking down the network to perform excessive data demands.

Along with an expanding presence of AirPort Mobile ubiquitous WiFi, this would help make mobile Macs more mobile just as Apple is seeing its Mac business move toward laptops and expand to displace PC laptops.

Amazon.com: Apple Airport Express
Amazon.com: Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Gigabit)
Amazon.com: Apple Time Capsule

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  • Realtosh

    Micro payments are a way to get tethering.

    An iPhone can theoretically just as capable a cell modem as any Express card cell modem. So if one wanted to pay for the extra data plan, either in micro payments or a all you can eat plan (within reason) then ATT should make the service available just as ATT and Verizon and other make available on certain BlackBerry and other phone which are allowed to tether. ATT allows certain BlackBerries to tether. There is no good reason why the iPhone should be ny different.

    With all the capacity issues that ATT is experiencing in some major cities, I wonder about ATT’s ability to service all those iPhones that Apple plans to sell.

    Unless ATT has some miraculous ability to multiply their capacity in certain urban centers by a magnitude or more, we may need to move some iPhone capacity over to Verizon and other networks just so that we can accommodate all of the iPhones that Apple will be selling. The number of iPhones in the wild are a small fraction of the phones that Apple is planning on selling in just the next year or two.

    I guess your micro payments for tethering is a tacit acknowledgement that ATT is already overburdened and that at the moment would not like to get more data traffic from iPhones even if paid. ATT’s service quality is already adversely affected by the popularity of the iPhone.

    ATT needs to desperately figure out how to get copious amounts of additional bandwidth capacity on their network; particularly in the oversubscribed urban centers. In the alternative, Apple needs to figure out how to get their iPhone on to other networks with additional capacity asap.

  • jerome_from_munich

    Excuse me, but you are reinventing the wheel here. Your idea is part of the gsm specifications and is implemented (already! on some networks like in Germany) in the following manner:

    -when the device uses its data plan, it goes through a first access point (and the network does not give you the password)
    -when you theter, you need to go through a different access point, which does not need a password.

    The network already has the capability to bill you differently depending on the access point you use.

    (For the ones who do not know: “access point” is a setting in your phone, or in the AT commands your laptop sends to your phone for a data connection)

    You also say that AT&T does not allow tethering phones on their network. They can’t really do that, all they can is allow or disallow usage of a specific access point. If you put the sim card of your iPhone in a different phone (which has the tethering bluetooth profile) and enter the right settings (which can probably be read in a jailbreaked iPhone), tethering will work. The network won’t know.

    Last but not least, data plans which allow use of data on the phone AND tethering do exist in different countries and they don’t mean that the network breaks down on overuse. It would rather seem that the US TA&T network is underdimensionned. This being said, a convention may indeed be too much. I live in Munich, we have the Oktoberfest now, with 2 millions people on a surface about a quarter of a square kilometer big. The local networks have brought extra towers all around the place, microcell transmitters in the tents, the whole works. But with the sheer number of people at the same place, the network is busy in the evening. But this is really a worst case situation, by far.

  • http://seanharlow.info Sean Harlow

    “leaving Macs strangely unable to do something that’s easy to do if you have an EVDO phone or even a GSM phone on certain other carriers.”

    Don’t you mean “leaving iPhone owners strangely unable to do something that’s easy to do with almost every other GSM phone on the market and many EVDO phones, no matter the provider.”?

    I’ve been using 3G data on AT&T with my Mac since before the iPhone was even announced. First with a LG CU500 and now with a Sony K850i, over both USB and Bluetooth. Phones that are capable of being used as a modem are not at all expensive. The CU500 was one of the first 3G phones AT&T offered and I paid less than $200 for it without any contracts.

    Given that every other smartphone has a NetShare-like app, there’s no logical reason why the iPhone should be treated any different by AT&T. Standardize it on to the same smartphone data packages as the Treos and WinMo devices use and offer the same upgrade which allows full laptop tethering. It’s not rocket science for AT&T and I really think there’s a bit of Jobs’ love of limitations coming in to play here. Why else would the Bluetooth capabilities of what is arguably the best smartphone on the market make a Verizon-crippled unit look great in comparison? Why else would there not be a clean way for iPhone owners to use the same LaptopConnect data plans they can get on any other phone? It just doesn’t make sense.

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    Floating rates for Internet access reminds me of evenings back in 2000 at Easy Everything (a web cafe chain by the same people as Easy Jet) before hone broadband became affordable here.

    They would change their rates by the minute – advertised on a screen at the entrance – such that you bought them at that price and could continue to use them if it went up too. (As I recall… this was 8 years ago!)

    Afternoons were several £ an hour – all depending on how many if their 100 or so terminals were in use – while at night you could snatch a couple of hours for pennies. This was handy for night owls like me, as it was close to the pub and we’d wander over after a few!

    With creaky partners like ATT you have to wonder how much network innovation will actually see the light of day. I wrote that I’d prefer to see Apple become The Ubiquitous WiFi ISP on the last article’s thread. It’s a pipe dream for now, but maybe someday. Depending how much the telcos are still screwing us and Apple around in several years!

  • PXT

    As an frequent traveller and owner of an iPhone, I want to be able to use my iPhone to access the internet for my laptop, that would be very convenient.

    But, I do not want my 3G/EDGE access to be slowed by large laptop downloads. That is the split I would like to see, rather than phone vs laptop. So, if Microsoft or Apple put out an automated 100MB update, or if iTunes sees an HD video podcast has been published, the ‘system’ would be smart enough to defer that for non-mobile download.

    So, I guess my point is that it is the content that should drive the type of access, rather than the source device – and of course I recognize that that is much trickier.

  • PXT

    And a wacky one…

    I often think that cars are under-used as internet nodes.
    They are mobile, and ubiquitous. They are also very big, so they can carry huge aerials, and they have lots of power.

    Imagine that each car was a wifi node but could also take satellite downloads and distribute the network to other nodes around them. Instead of finding a cafe, you just need to be near a road. It may be that the nearest internet connection is miles away, but as long as there is traffic, the network gets linked to where you are. In all the times that you have needed access, but not had wifi, how far away were you from a car?

    Cars are great places for internet services anyway – we listen to music, get traffic reports, use mapping, and gps, use carphone kits, it’s a great place to put mobile services which are currently fragmented.

  • lmasanti

    “seem that the US TA&T network is underdimensionned.”

    Apple is all about user’s experience, so while AT&T network is broken, Apple should do not do anything extra to destroy it.

    In the last article you blame for the “$8 per hour price”. Why it would be possible to sell it at $.99- (Good example in last comment.)

    Also, there is this pattent by Google on cell-phone-carrier bids… Extend it to Wi-Fi!

  • http://teamoverkill.com/blog/ LD

    Sounds needlessly complicated, the opposite of Apple. One could never know what their data charges could be, either monthly, or hour to hour, city to city. Sounds like a Microsoft pricing scheme similar to the multitude of Vista products.

  • Realtosh

    @ LD

    Yep, I agree.
    Whenever ATT delivers iPhone tethering it will likely be an additional $20-$30-$40 bucks additional per month like similar offerings from ATT for soma BlackBerries and from various other carriers for other handsets. This would be an all you can get broadband data access, within reason before they would throttle you down.

  • gus2000

    “seem that the US TA&T network is underdimensionned.”

    If Apple moves the iPhone to the “T&A” network, I’m switching!

    I think the problem is with bandwidth metering. Consumers dropped those plans “like they were hot” when all-you-can-eat plans became available, and as a result most content is formatted as if bandwidth is “free”. I have no idea how anyone using dialup can navigate the web.

    Still, I suppose that having the capability of tethering, even while restricted, would be useful to some. I would likely sign up if the costs were only associated with usage, since I would only need it on occasion.

  • http://redunionsalon.com macslut

    I currently use the PDAnet app for tethering with the iPhone. It works unbelievably well, and is much easier than the other apps. AT&T should offer this for a monthly fee $20 and it should be available for $1 an hour.

  • http://twibe.com trainwrecka

    I can’t think of anything I would “casually” do on a laptop that required an Internet connection I can’t do on the iPhone already.

    I think the demand for the tethering thing (and copy and paste) has been blown out of proportion. I’m not against having them, but there are better things Apple could bring to iPhone first.

  • http://www.nlpt.com.au GregA

    The pricing looks a bit difficult. I’d also worry about my iPhone power dropping as others use my wifi & 3G connection.

    Still it’s something to consider. Even if Apple only shared it to iPod Touch users. Ideally an iPod Touch user would pay a very small fee to AT&T (etc) when they use any iPhone’s 3G and that iPhone would not have the usage counted against it.

  • http://www.ccsgraphic.com CCS

    @GregA: iPod Touch? Who’d tether their iPhone to an iPod Touch? Is this just for network sharing, you mean? If you just happen to be near other iPhone users?

  • http://seanharlow.info Sean Harlow

    “I can’t think of anything I would “casually” do on a laptop that required an Internet connection I can’t do on the iPhone already.”

    -Watch any major video site other than Youtube
    -View documents outside of a small subset of Office and similar formats
    -Respond to an e-mail with more than a paragraph while not killing your thumbs
    -Use an IE-only web site

    I currently carry two phones and two laptops at almost all times. In both cases, the reason I have to carry two is a feature Apple left out. I can’t complain too much about the lack of a serial port on my Macbook Pro, very few people need them any more and if the USB adapters weren’t crap it wouldn’t be a problem.
    The phone though I see as a legitimate complaint. If the iPhone could tether, I’d be carrying a single iPhone 3G rather than a first-gen iPhone and a Sony 3G unit. The problem here is 100% AT&T politics. I can easily make my iPhone use the SIM out of my Sony, at which point it is attached to an account with a legitimate full-on tethering supported data plan. I can get that same plan on any other smartphone and even a lot of dumbphones (like my Sony and its LG predecessor), but for some reason I’m not allowed to pay the same extra on an iPhone.

  • AlanAudio

    Laptops with integrated mobile Internet connections are almost with us. When they appear, they’ll need sensibly priced contracts, just as the iPhone needed affordable unlimited Internet. Whatever arrangement is devised would presumably work equally well for a tethered iPhone.

  • Realtosh

    @ AlanAudio

    Integrated laptops exist. Dell and others have been selling them for some time. Those contracts should be priced identically to expresscard modems that are inserted into the slot on the side of the laptop.

    The tethering data options for cellphones are usually a bit cheaper. It’s just more revenue for the same device. The integrated laptops and the expresscard modems are separate devices. You could be using both the cell phone and the separate data device (modem, laptop) at the same time using more network capacity.

    Yes, many carriers already have tethering plans for cell phones. Apple just needs to negotiate tethering options for iPhone with ATT & other carriers.

  • airmanchairman

    When comparing the cellular networks of those densely-populated countries like Germany etc to the USA and describing certain US carrier’s networks as “creaky”, it has to be borne in mind that the USA is vast, humongously vast. This presents different challenges to their national carriers beyond just technology and availability of data options.

    After several months of frantic searching, a spotter plane has only just located what may be the wreckage of Steve Fosset’s airplane, lost in a flight between only 2 states, and adjacent to each other.

    The USA is frighteningly vast, not to talk of North America as a whole…

  • http://www.nlpt.com.au GregA

    Yeah, I thought the idea was sharing with random Apple-based strangers. Similar to his other article on sharing Airport Extreme.

    Otherwise… the idea of tethering a phone to a laptop doesn’t seem worth an article longer than a single line of “please”, does it.

  • http://www.DemSign.com Scooteristi

    All I know is that I was lucky enough to get NetShare when it was up in August. And when I was at my parents’ house in podunk Tennessee still relying on dial-up it was super sweet to be able to tether my MacBook to surf.

    Too bad NetShare only passes data on Port 80, great for surfing, but a pain for email, Back to My Mac, and other web apps.