If you’re out and about and desperately need an internet connection for your laptop, being able to use your mobile as a modem sounds like an attractive option. But beware, there can often be hidden costs.
After a Which? member complained to us that he’d been charged extra for tethering his mobile to a laptop, we decided to investigate whether this is common practice across the networks.
What is mobile tethering?
Tethering means connecting another device – such as a laptop – to your phone and allowing it to access the internet through your mobile’s data connection.
The spread of smartphones has made this feature increasingly popular, especially as many models can now use their wi-fi connectivity to act as a hotspot, sharing their internet connection with other wi-fi enabled gadgets.
How do the mobile networks treat tethering?
The first thing our investigation discovered was just how hard it is to find clear information about the networks’ approach to tethering.
While most of their websites do provide basic information, this is often tricky to find or fails to include a comprehensive explanation.
We therefore decided to contact the major networks directly to get confirmation of their policies.
If you’re a Vodafone* customer then you have two options. The first of these is to buy a ‘tethering pack’. This costs £15 and provides you with 2GB of data to use with other devices – go over this and it will cost you an extra £15 for each additional 1GB. If you don’t want to buy a tethering pack then you can still tether your device, although you will be charged £5 for each day you use the service.
T-Mobile has a similar policy, charging an extra £10 a month for 1GB of tethering data. Unlike the other networks its PAYG customers can also get in on the action, with a variety of packages ranging from £2 for 250MB of data.
Orange too sells additional tethering bundles, starting at £5.10 for 500MB. However these bundles are restricted to iPhone users. This means that customers that have bought other smartphones won’t be able to use them for tethering.
O2 used to charge for tethering, but earlier this year it changed its tariffs for new customers. Now tethering comes included in all its data packages at no extra cost.
3 charges for tethering on most of its contracts – but it is included in its One Plan that offers unlimited internet. This makes it a fantastic choice if you want to regularly share your internet connection.
The operators justify their charges on the grounds that they give the users extra data. However this fails to take into account the fact that almost all smartphones already come with inclusive data allowances, much of which never gets used.
At Which? Mobile we feel it’s completely unfair that Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange won’t allow you to use the data allowance that you’ve already paid for when you want to tether your mobile and instead force you to buy even more data that you may not want.
Some potentially good news is that Vodafone told us that it was in the process of reviewing its data and tethering policy and will introduce new plans shortly – although it was too early to give us any further details.
And it’s great to see that O2 and 3 offer an alternative approach. So if you’re thinking about buying a new phone, and plan to tether it to your laptop on a regular basis, you may want to look at their tariffs first.
*[Update] Since June 1 2011, Vodafone’s new data plans no longer include charges for tethering – existing customers can have their data plans transferred without extending their contract, as long as their monthly payment stays the same or is larger.