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I’m Tethered

Let me take a break from the posts I’ve been writing in which I describe some of the sights we visited when we were in North Carolina last week in order to insert a travel note of a different sort.

In preparing for our trip, I knew we would stay for three nights in a New York hotel where we have been dozens of times. I have learned from painful experience that their wifi internet connection is of variable quality. Sometimes it works seamlessly. Sometimes I can’t get a page to load for minutes. And I pay for this of course.

We would then spend four nights in The Carolina Inn on the University of North Carolina campus. Free wifi was promised. Given the university connection, perhaps it would be just like home. Or better.

Was it time to tether?

Let me explain. Tethering is the process by which you convert your internet-enabled smart phone into a wifi hotspot to which you can “tether” other devices — a laptop, a tablet, whatever. No need for those stand-alone “mifi” devices that various cell phone companies offer with separate monthly plans, but that end up being one more object to travel with, one more item to charge. Just let your phone do it all.

The history of iPhone tethering is a painful one. Long after Apple introduced the capability, long after one could tether in other countries, AT&T didn’t allow it. When they finally did, there was a twist. Those of us who bought iPhones long enough ago and have stuck with AT&T have unlimited data forever for our monthly data charge of $30. Somewhere along the way, AT&T ended unlimited plans, requiring new iPhone buyers to choose between two plans that, I think initially, were 200MB/month at $15 and 2GB/month at $25. Looking at the website now, I see that the deal has changed — 300MB/month for $20 or 3 GB/month for $30. So here I am paying $30/month for unlimited. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

The reason this is an issue is that in order to enable tethering on the iPhone, one has to change one’s data plan, thereby giving up unlimited data forever. In addition to the 200MB and 2GB plans, there’s a 5GB plan, for $50/month. If one wants to tether, one must choose that. You can choose it, travel, come back, and switch to a smaller plan. What you can’t do is switch back to the unlimited plan.

Thus, if I want to tether, I sacrifice unlimited, something I’ve been loath to do.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. One, under no imaginable current circumstance would I ever go over 3GB/month. I don’t download and watch movies on my phone. Two, AT&T has recently imposed a slow-down on big users with unlimited plans. If they go over 2 or 3 GB, download speeds decrease drastically. Thus unlimited isn’t so unlimited.

The upshot: I’m giving up essentially nothing by giving up my unlimited plan. If I’m not traveling/tethering, I can pay the same $30/month for 3GB of data usage and I’ll surely be fine. It’s virtually unlimited, given my usage patterns. And by going to $50/month, I’m paying $20 but saving the daily hotel charges. A bargain, actually.

But is the tethering connection fast? Is this really a bargain? I decided to find out.

I went online, signed in, and clicked the box changing my data plan to $50/month for 5GB. I then got an error message, something about a conflict in what I was trying to do. Tried again, same message. Called AT&T. The person I spoke to had no clue, but after a long hold she explained that it turns out AT&T wouldn’t let me keep my text message plan if I changed my data plan. Bizarre. I could pay per text or pay $15/month for unlimited. You know, I don’t text much. I was paying $5/month for 200 texts. Forget it. I said go ahead and make the change. She put me on hold, came back, said it was done. I now have no text plan, but the big data plan and tethering.

This was two Thursdays ago. I went to the iPhone settings, turned on wifi hotspot, tested it on my MacBook Air, and it worked. I was set.

Ten days later, what do I think? It’s great. At the hotel in New York, I did everything I usually do, except maybe watching videos, and I was using about 100MB/day. (I didn’t explain, but once you tether, all the devices that use the iPhone’s internet connection have their data usage counted against the monthly iPhone limit.)

When we checked into The Carolina Inn, I opened my MacBook Air, connected to the free hotel wifi, and got an amazingly fast connection. I wasn’t going to need tethering. For a moment, I had doubts about my decision. But that night, after dinner, the wifi didn’t work. Same in the morning, after initial success. That was the continuing pattern. When it worked, it was fast. But it was completely unreliable. Back to tethering.

I have to say, I prefer free hotel wifi to the $20/month additional cost of the AT&T tether-enabled plan, but only if the hotel wifi works. If it doesn’t, that $20/month beats free. And just knowing that option was there whenever I needed it was a pleasure.

I only wonder why I didn’t make the move earlier. I was so worried about sacrificing my unlimited plan. Big mistake. Another attraction is that I could bring my iPad (wifi only) and use that too through the hotspot. I didn’t bring it on this trip. Why carry everything? I chose the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and my lightweight Kindle. Next time, though, now that I know how well tethering works, I might bring the iPad rather than the Kindle.

I now need to decide whether to stick with the current data plan or switch down and wait for the next trip to return to the tethering plan. I have no need for tethering at home or work. I suppose I could use it to connect my iPad if I find myself somewhere without free wifi, like driving in the car. But I can just as well use the iPhone itself then. Anyway, I recommend it. It worked smoothly, saved me money, and ensured a good connection at all times.

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