iPhone Internet Tethering and the iPad

According to a recent article on Gizmodo, an iPhone owner sent an email to Steve Jobs asking: “Will the Wi-Fi-only iPad support tethering through my iPhone?” Steve replied with a one word answer: “No.”

Assuming this report is accurate, what exactly are the iPad-related implications (beyond the obvious one) of Jobs’ answer? In particular, how might it affect which iPad (Wi-Fi-only vs. Wi-Fi + 3G) you should buy?

But wait! Before answering these questions, you may want answers to some more fundamental ones. Questions such as: “What is Internet tethering?”; “Why would I want to use it?”; and “Why has AT&T not yet enabled iPhone Internet tethering?”

Q. What is Internet tethering and why would I want to use it?

A. Internet tethering typically refers to using a mobile device, such as an iPhone, as a means to connect another device, such as a laptop, to the Internet. As to why you might want to do this, imagine this…

You are at a coffee shop or hotel or whatever. You have your MacBook with you and want to connect it to the Internet. One problem: There is no public Wi-Fi connection available at your location.

It seems you are out of luck. But wait! You have your iPhone with you. By accessing the 3G network (assuming you can pick up a 3G signal at your current location), your iPhone can connect to the Internet even if no Wi-Fi is available.

So one solution is to use your iPhone instead of your MacBook. But suppose you want to do something that can’t be done with your iPhone — such as download software from a Web site or work with a physical keyboard? For such tasks, wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to connect your MacBook to the Internet via the iPhone’s 3G network?

There is a way. It’s called Internet tethering. Via this feature, your iPhone acts as a modem and your MacBook becomes “tethered” (or “attached”) to your iPhone’s 3G Internet access. Problem solved. 

Q. Sounds great. How do I set up Internet tethering on my iPhone?

A. Assuming your iPhone carrier allows tethering (more on this in a moment), the first step is to turn on the Internet tethering option. To do so, go to the iPhone’s Settings app and navigate to General > Network > Internet Tethering. From here, move the Internet Tethering slider to On (as shown in an Apple support article).

The next step is to establish the connection to your Mac. This is not the place for a complete tutorial on how to do this (shameless plug: for step-by-step details, get my ebook: Take Control of iPhone OS 3). For now, all you need to know is this: You can tether your iPhone to a Mac via either (1) USB, using the iPhone’s Dock connector to create a wired connection or (2) Bluetooth, for a wireless connection. 

I have tested iPhone tethering and can report that it works spectacularly well. It has its drawbacks; it’s slower than a typical Wi-Fi connection and it drains the iPhone’s battery especially fast. But it’s much better than the alternative of no connection at all.

Q. I can’t find the Internet Tethering option on my iPhone. What’s going on?

A. Now we get to the bad news.

Internet Tethering was added as an iPhone feature in iPhone OS 3.0, released in June 2009. However, this feature only shows up if your iPhone’s carrier supports tethering.

AT&T, the only official carrier in the U.S., has not yet enabled tethering. This means that AT&T iPhone users won’t find the Internet Tethering option in their Settings app. AT&T has promised that tethering will be enabled for the iPhone eventually. However, as of December 2009, they still have not committed to any date.

If you live outside of the U.S., check this Apple article to see if your carrier supports Internet tethering.

Q. Why has AT&T not yet enabled iPhone Internet tethering?

A. AT&T’s stated reason for the delay is that tethering takes a heavy toll on its network (requiring a disproportionate amount of bandwidth). Assuming that many iPhone users would be using tethering once it was offered, AT&T believes its network is currently not up to the task. Tethering will thus not be enabled until AT&T upgrades its service.

Given the frequent complaints about AT&T’s slow (or complete lack of) 3G service in too many locations, AT&T’s explanation seems plausible. However, there may be more going on here. As usual, the “more” involves money.

One big question is whether or not AT&T will charge extra for tethering and, if so, how much extra? Various scenarios have been floated. One prediction is that tethering will cost around $30 per month, probably with some cap on the amount of data transfer allowed. Another possibility is that you pay as you go, with a fee for each MB of transferred data. AT&T is aware that such fees will not be welcome by iPhone owners, especially given that users are already paying a monthly fee for Internet access. As such, AT&T may be pondering the best way to handle the situation, as well as waiting for their network upgrade. Until they have a definite plan of action, they appear content to remain in a holding pattern.

Q. While we’re waiting for AT&T to allow tethering, are there other alternatives?

A. This question can be broken down into two parts: (1) Is there any way I connect my MacBook to a 3G network without using an iPhone?; (2) Is there any way I can bypass AT&T and use Internet tethering on my iPhone right now?

The answer to the first question is simple: Yes. You can buy a 3G/EDGE modem. Such modems typically connect to your Mac via USB. As one example, AT&T offers the USBConnect Quicksilver. The fee structure is similar to buying a mobile phone. You get a discounted price for the hardware ($99 in this case), if you agree to a two-year service plan contract. The service plan choice is either $35/month for 200 MB of data or $60/month for 5 GB. There is no no unlimited option.

A related possibility is to get a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device, such as the Novatel (Verizon) MiFi. It too requires a service plan.

This brings us to the second question. Assuming you prefer to avoid the purchase of yet another device and paying yet another monthly fee, is there a way to use the iPhone you already have? The answer is a tentative yes.

Depending upon what iPhone model you have, and what iPhone OS version you are running, you may be able to activate Internet tethering on your iPhone — without waiting for AT&T to do it. One way to do this requires that you jailbreak your iPhone. The other way is via a “hack” offered on this Web page (although this will likely not work if you have an iPhone 3GS running iPhone OS 3.1.x). If you want the details on these options, there are many Web sites that provide them. Be warned: These methods are not supported or approved by Apple or AT&T. Use them at your own risk.

Q. What does all of this talk of iPhone Internet tethering have to do with the iPad?

A. The iPad comes in two basic models: the Wi-Fi-only model and the Wi-Fi + 3G model (at $130 more). Even with the 3G model, you don’t have to commit to any long-term data plan. Instead, you decide on a month-by-month basis: $15/month for 250 MB or $30/month for unlimited data access. Compared to the cost and required contract of an AT&T USB modem, this is a great deal. It’s less than half the monthly cost of AT&T’s USB modem data plans!

As a bonus, only the Wi-FI + 3G iPad includes a GPS chip. Plus, when you have 3G enabled, AT&T throws in free Wi-Fi access at all of its hotspots (such as at Starbucks).

That’s why, even if you don’t expect to be using 3G access, I’d recommend springing for the extra $130.

Still, I am aware that many users will opt for the Wi-Fi-only model. Perhaps it will be just to save the initial outlay of cash. Or maybe they expect to use their iPad only in locations where free Wi-Fi is readily available. Okay. But what if such a user later decides they occasionally want 3G access after all? What then? 

This is where Internet Tethering for the iPhone could come to the rescue. By tethering an iPhone to a Wi-Fi-only iPad, your iPad could connect to a 3G network. In fact, I can imagine certain cases where this might be an overall better choice than a Wi-Fi + 3G iPad. For example, if you have multiple devices that you want to be able to connect to a 3G network (your iPad and your MacBook), you could accomplish this with just one iPhone and one one monthly fee (rather than a separate fee for each device). Even if AT&T charges an extra fee for tethering, this could work out to be the cheapest way to add 3G access to your laptop and iPad.

However, for the iPhone tethering scenario to work, you’ll need to overcome two obstacles. The first, as I’ve already covered, is that AT&T needs to enable tethering (assuming you won’t be going the jailbreaking route). Who knows if or when AT&T will ever do this. The second obstacle is that the iPad needs to accept a tethered iPhone.

The second obstacle brings us back full circle to the beginning of this column. Steve Jobs is supposedly on record as saying the iPad will not support Internet tethering from the iPhone. Given the terseness of Steve’s reply, we are left to extrapolate a bit as to exactly what he meant.

One possibility is that he only meant that you won’t be able to tether in the U.S. until AT&T enables the option on the iPhone. However, I think not. I believe he meant exactly what he said: you won’t be able to tether an iPhone to an iPad even if AT&T enables the tethering option. Here’s why:

There is no USB port on the iPad. So there is no way to tether via a wired connection (barring some yet-to-be-created Dock-to-Dock connector). This means the only tethering option for the iPad is wirelessly over Bluetooth. However, for Bluetooth tethering to work, the iPad’s OS must permit the option. Apple has already shown, with the iPhone, that it can and will disable Bluetooth features that it doesn’t want available. For example, you can’t share files between your iPhone and your Mac via Bluetooth. There is no reason that the iPad’s OS could not be similarly set to prohibit Bluetooth Internet tethering.

Some observers have argued that this is exactly what AT&T wants. Otherwise, iPhone tethering could siphon off potential iPad 3G data plan customers. I am not so sure. AT&T could price the cost of tethering so that they get their revenue no matter which route you take. Allowing tethering may also prevent some users from opting instead for a Verizon MiFi or similar solution.

Does this mean we may eventually see iPhone tethering allowed on the iPad? Who knows? As for now, should you get the Wi-Fi-only or Wi-Fi + 3G iPad? Assuming the price difference matters to you, it can be a tough decision after all. A clear answer may not emerge for several months, until the dust has had a chance to settle. If you plan on pre-ordering an iPad (starting on March 12), you’ll just have to take your best guess. As for me, I’ll be getting the Wi-Fi + 3G model.