If you have an Android smartphone, odds are that you pay your wireless carrier a hefty sum each month for data. While it seems fairly straight forward that if you pay for a certain number of bytes, you should be able to just use them, the carriers don’t usually see it that way. As such, last year the big US carriers started blocking users from downloading a number of popular tethering apps in the Android Market (now the Play Store).
We’re going to check out the tethering landscape on Android right now, and see what your options really are.
What’s happening, and why
It started with Verizon Wireless early last summer. Users reported suddenly losing access to several popular tethering apps in the Android Market, and it turns out the carrier was behind it with the consent of Google. Google always allowed carriers to control what apps were allowed on devices locked to their networks, but this was the first time it was used to block apps on such a wide scale.
It wasn’t long before AT&T followed suit, and began blocking popular tethering apps. Being the other top-tier carrier, we weren’t surprised Ma Bell was sticking close to Verizon's policies. We were a little more unsettled late last year when Sprint decided to take the same course of action, blocking many tethering apps. T-Mobile still hasn’t gone out of its way to block tethering apps, but we have seen a few wireless hotspot apps that are blocked on the smallest of the big four.
When attempting to view an app that is blocked, the phone simply won’t display it in searches. The web interface will show a message that the app is not available on your carrier. In the past this was just used to restrict carrier-specific apps, like billing apps or the custom Verizon Skype client. But the door apparently swings both ways.
The obvious goal here is to push users to pay for tethering data plans through the carrier. Many of these plans cost $20-30, and are often added onto an already limited plan. Any arguments from the carriers that tethering users consume more data, and need to be charged more go out the window when the user is already on a limited plan. You’re paying for the data in the first place, so it’s a little disingenuous for the carrier to put limits on that pile of bytes. Luckily, there are a number of ways around this block.
What you can still do
The Google Play Store is a big place, and the policy of blocking tethering apps requires attentiveness. This is something the carriers don’t really have -- lucky for you. Let’s take the case of PdaNet, which is one of the most popular USB tethering apps out there. This was one of the first apps blocked by carriers, but there is now a new version. We don’t just mean the app has been updated; it has been published under a new listing, “PdaNet 3.02.” This has escaped Verizon’s notice, and probably other carriers too. EasyTether is another popular choice, but it appears to be totally blocked for most US users.
Similar to the situation with PdaNet, new arrivals on Android have been overlooked. There is a great USB tethering app from ClockworkMod called ClockworkMod Tether, and we aren’t seeing any evidence that it has been blocked. If you just look around, you should find a number of perfectly good USB tethering apps that are still available.
Wireless tethering is a little more touch and go. Carriers seem to be more worried about these apps, likely because there is more demand for this functionality. We’re seeing more so-called hotspot apps blocked than USB tethers, but there are still a few to be had inside the Play Store.
The apps blocked on each carrier will vary, and will sometimes seem bizarre. For instance, Verizon has gone out of its way to block several little-known wireless tethering apps, but left one of the most popular, Barnacle, alone. The best way to sort this out is from the web client, not the phone. The Play Store on Android has that annoying habit of just excluding unavailable apps from search results.
Going a step further
If you just want to get out from under the carrier’s thumb, you’ve got precious few options. GSM phones that store the carrier identity on SIM cards can be removed from the device. Just power off the phone, pull the SIM, and power the device back up. Now your Play Store should be free from carrier interference. When you put the SIM back in, your apps selection will go back to the way it was, so no updates for the unauthorized tethering apps you sneakily downloaded. Also, rooted users can manually alter the files that identify the carrier, allowing them access to blocked apps.
If you can find the tethering app you need outside of the Play Store, that is yet another way around the carrier lockdown. Some of the developers affected by the blockage have made the APK files available for sideloading. Though, with the lack of constant policing in the Store, you should be able to find an acceptable app the old fashioned way.
The carriers aren’t likely to let up on the data usage restrictions any time soon. It’s lucky that they seem to be fairly lax in their policing of tethering apps, which means you can find what you need with a little digging. Since every carrier is a little different, feel free to share the inside scoop with us on which unblocked tethering apps you find the most useful on your network.