Mobile Internet access is practically a necessity for many small business owners and employees. After all, mobile workers often need to access their office remotely or need to use Web applications to be productive. Many remote connectivity options exist -- ranging from Wi-Fi hotspots to tethered smartphones -- but they're typically inconvenient or too expensive
Relying on free Wi-Fi hotspots to conduct your business is dicey at best; finding one that's both convenient and offers a reliable, speedy, connection is a challenge. For example, free Wi-Fi hotspots located in large airports tend to be too saturated with traffic to be useful, while other Wi-Fi hotspots are usually only available under limited circumstances or require some form of payment, membership or other criteria that limits usability.
Buying mobile hotspots or separate data plans for your mobile devices are both very expensive and inefficient, especially if the data plan has caps or minute-by-minute fees. That situation forces mobile workers to choose between the lesser of two evils to maintain any type of connectivity.
Tether.com offers a different way to stay connected while mobile. The company’s software turns most any smartphone into an Internet connection -- without costly data-tethering plans, mobile hotspots or other carrier-based solutions. Tether works by installing a small application on your smartphone, which then lets you use that smartphone's data plan to access the Internet on your PC or Mac.
A Closer Look at Tether and a Few Caveats
Tether supports Blackberry devices, Android-based smartphones and Apple’s iPhone. On the client side, Tether supports both Windows and Mac laptops. You establish the connection between a smartphone running Tether and the computer using a USB cable (and in some cases, Bluetooth). And that limit Tether's use in certain situations.
For example, if you want to transform your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, you will have to look elsewhere -- Tether doesn’t provide that capability yet. What’s more, support for Android devices may be limited by a lack of USB drivers, which let the smartphone "network" with the PC. Another caveat is that Tether does not support IOS devices, so if you need mobile Internet access for your iPad, iPad Mini or iPOD Touch, Tether won't work for you.
Nevertheless, if you do have a device that meets Tether’s prerequisites, then the product can be a valuable asset. Because it works with the data plan included with your phone, you don't have to buy additional data plans to share that connection. That alone justifies the $29.95 fee for the product (yearly subscription on iPhone).
Tether Installation and Access Speed
Installation is simple – just download the Tether application from Tether.com, and install it on your PC or Mac. Once you launch the application, you receive instructions on how to install necessary USB drivers, as well as Tether's smartphone component.
We found the process easy on both a Blackberry Curve and a Samsung Galaxy S. Everything worked as promised on both devices, and we quickly connected to our device's data plan. The Samsung ran on the T-Mobile network, which gave us 4G access to the Web. Speed measurements using Speedtest.net showed 5.30Mbps download speeds and 1.66Mbps upload speeds.
However the Blackberry Curve, running on the Virgin Mobile network, only offered 3G connectivity. Speeds dropped dramatically, with download speeds reaching only .55Mbps and upload speeds dropping to .33Mbps.
Of course when it comes to measuring speed, there are a lot of external factors involved, such as signal strength, the cellular network involved, as well as the type of radios used in the smartphone. Nevertheless, when configured correctly and using a cellular network that provides 4G connectivity, Tether offers a relatively speedy connection.
The iPhone Experience
The installation process differs with iPhones, as does the connectivity portion of Tether (or iTether, as it's known in Apple vernacular). Using an iPhone involves installing client software on your PC or Mac, and then accessing a website from your iPhone’s browser, which establishes a connection.
While iTether used to be available on Apple’s App Store, Apple removed the product shortly after it launched. Tether.com now embeds HTML5 on its website, which lets you share the iPhone’s data connection.
We tested iTether on the iPhone, using the AT&T network. Because of spotty coverage in our area, we couldn't make a 4G cellular connection. However, 3G speed test results were similar to the Blackberry/Virgin Mobile results.
Is Tether worth it? The simple answer is – there is no simple answer. You need to consider the caveats before deciding whether Tether is right for you. First, look at your smartphone to make sure it can support Tether. Treat Tether as an emergency (or infrequent use) solution and -- if you intend to use mobile access frequently -- go with an approved data-sharing plan. Also, make sure that using Tether with your plan does not violate any service agreements.
Other considerations include whether you need a mobile hotspot, which is something Tether does not do yet. Also, Tether normally requires a USB connection to function. If you need wireless connectivity between your smartphone and your PC/Mac, then Tether may not be for you.
One last note; we had difficulty contacting the company for additional information and for support related issues. However, Tether for Android and Blackberry offers a 30-day trial, so you can try before you buy. The iPhone version does not offer a free trial and requires a $29.95 annual subscription.
Frank Ohlhorst is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for ComputerWorld, TechTarget, PCWorld, ExtremeTech, Tom's Hardware, Entrepreneur, Forbes and BNET. Ohlhorst was also the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek and former director of the CRN Test Center.
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