What is tethering? [Android A to Z]

What is tethering?  Besides the grounds for a giant debate about ethics (the kind that you can only find on the Internet) tethering, in this case, means to share the Internet connection from your phone with other devices. There are several ways to accomplish this -- connecting your phone to your computer via USB, setting up your phone as a wireless hotspot and router, and sharing a data stream over Bluetooth. All these connection types are built into Android, with native Bluetooth tethering new in Ice Cream Sandwich. Of course, different manufacturers can, and have, modified things so that these options are excluded -- at the behest of the carrier, of course. We'll talk more about why in a few minutes.

Tethering itself is pretty easily done.  USB tethering involves installing device drivers (Windows only) and plugging in your phone to a high-speed USB port on your computer, then using your computer's built-in connection manager to use the phone or tablet as a USB modem. Bluetooth tethering will need the phone paired with the computer, and the connection type set up correctly in your computer's Bluetooth settings. Wifi is the easiest way -- you just turn it on and connect as you would any other wireless hotspot.

Except that many carriers, especially in the United States, have blocked tethering this way.  

You see, your carrier wants to charge you a premium to use your data plan from any device besides your phone.  Nobody likes it, but it's in the terms you agreed to when you signed up. They have all sorts of ways to block tethering on their end, and they are pretty diligent about it. Android hackers and developers also have found ways to work around these blocks, and it's a big cat and mouse game. An inside source with one the the biggest cellular carriers in the world has specifically told me that if your usage pattern draws suspicion, there is no current method that can't be detected by you carrier, including the newer VPN methods. If you do it a lot, without paying the extra fees associated with it, you'll get caught.

We're not going to judge anyone, and a few of us here at Android Central think charging extra for tethering is silly -- especially with data caps. Just know what may happen before you start so you don't get caught unaware.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is sideloading?; Find more in the AndroidDictionary

More from the Android Dictionary


Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • >"USB tethering involves installing device drivers (Windows only) " Clarification.... USB tethering can be done by Linux and MacOS, also, but does not require "device drivers". In some ways it is easier. In others it is more difficult.
  • But the device drivers are (Windows only) :)
  • Yeah, I just wanted to clarify because one could read the sentence as "USB tethering requires device drivers and those are available for MS-Windows only". See what I mean?
  • I use my Nexus for 95% of my needs. However, there are times when I need to tether. It is nice and convenient. I don't want to pay for it, with the little I use.However, I don't feel entitled to it like so many do. If Verizon told me to stop, I wouldn't be mad about it.
  • Of course they are going to say they can detect any method. If they told us what they can and cannot detect it would be a huge green light to everyone on the fence.
  • For something like a Nexus, there is really only one means of reliably detecting tethering that does not require a great deal of deep packet inspection, which is probably beyond the capabilities of the carriers on any large scale.
  • Tethering a phone is like using a router with your ISP on your home connection. I don't see the problem. I understand going after those that abuse it (use it solely as their connection for their home machines puts a load on the network), but the way they police it these days is downright ridiculous. I hope it doesn't give the home wired ISP's any ideas...then we'll be paying for each device that connects to our router to access the web...
  • The available bandwidth on cell towers is much, much less than your wired, home, ISP connection. So the comparison is not terribly valid. Of course, the providers really need to work on more and better towers, but it is expensive. They have valid concerns about people swamping the network such that everyone suffers. As we have seen, this is already happening WITHOUT tethering. If the carriers did not fight tethering, they would likely have to flush their network down the toilet. Still sucks, though.
  • Bandwidth of towers doesn't matter at all once you are on a tiered data plan.
    Your whole line of reasoning only makes sense if you assume "unlimited" data plans.
  • Someone's not making the right tethering app. You need to build it in the same sense as a double adapter works for the mains power.
  • Sounds like you had a fun writing filled Friday afternoon, Jerry.
  • The providers need to just allow tethering with whatever tiered data plan you have .. If I have 2Gb of data to use I have to buy another 2Gb/month in order tether .. Doesn't matter that I never even use 300Mb of that first 2Gb currently .. AT&T of course .. Their response to the argument that data is data and bill me if I go over 2Gb is that tethering is data intensive and we are helping you out by giving an additional 2Gb .. what a load ..
  • Verizon's tethering does work that way. If you have 2 GB of data and you add tethering, you have 2 GB of data to use between the phone and tethered devices. This is a huge plus for those of us who got to keep our unlimited data plans...we are able to get unlimited tethering. That's what I'm currently using at home until my internet is installed, and it even runs my PS3 for Netflix.
  • The providers need to just allow tethering with whatever tiered data plan you have My prediction is that free tethering within your tiered data will be something providers will (magnanimously, and with great fanfare) roll out, about a month before congressional hearings are about to be held on the matter. Those of us with grandfathered unlimited plans will probably not be included in that rollout. Similar to the way unlimited text plans ended being essentially free once carriers got wind of congressional investigations, they will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to this decision. Lets face it, maybe two percent of smartphone users ever heard about tethering, of those maybe 10% actually do it, and of those probably 50% routinely exceed 5gig per month. It is those tiny numbers to which we owe our thanks for tiered data caps, and tethering bans.
  • People always seem to miss a big piece of the puzzle: mobile broadband services. The carriers want you to sell you a separate mobile broadband service for your laptop or netbook. If they let people tether for free, they are canabalizing this service offering. Of course in reality, I don't think they are selling many mobile broadband plans, so I suspect that on capped carriers they will eventually let you tether without restriction. Personally, I use my phone as a mobile hotspot from time to time on T-Mobile but I don't rely on it. My home connection is 35/35 FiOS so it doesn't make much sense to use my phone carrier as my ISP. So far, I haven't heard a peep from T-Mobile regarding my meager usage. My usage pattern probably doesn't trigger their audit.
  • When I saw the title was about tethering I didn't expect it would me an article about the "provider politics" of tethering. I was hoping for information on HOW to make it work, but all articles and documentation I have seen so far only talk about how it "COULD" be done, without actually telling me HOW to do it. My gear:
    A Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a Galaxy Y phone. Also one (1) 3G card in the phone. What I don't need:
    I shouldn't need to buy a second 3G card just for the Tab when tethering could solve the problem. I also don't need to talk about problems someone else may be having with their service provider in America, since I'm not there and I didn't sign any enforceable contract, (and you probably didn't either - but then I digress). What I DO need:
    I need to find a way to have the Tab tether to the phone and use it for Internet access, either via the phone's wifi or data connection, whichever is currently in use. It would also be nice to be able to do file transfers between those two devices, and another computer. I thought bluetooth could be used for this, and the devices are "paired", but I've never seen any instructions on what to do to get the devices to actually communicate with each other for anything, whether it be sharing an Internet connection or file transfers between devices. How about an article that _really_ tells exactly HOW to use bluetooth? Does it really do anything, or is that just another one of those "it could _someday_ do it" kind of thing? I don't know. It doesn't seem to be user intuitive.
  • Long press your file. Push share/send. Choose Bluetooth. Its really not rocket science. As for tethering, root your phone. Type in wifi tether into the android market (or into google and sideload the apk if your carrier blocks those apps) and download. Once again, we're not curing cancer here...
  • As for your share/send instructions:
    Been there,
    done that,
    no joy.
    Doesn't work in any direction. As for your tethering instructions:
    Phone was rooted since the day I got it.
    App was installed on the phone already, but when tethering is turned on the Tab still has no Internet connection. It may not be curing cancer, but it still ain't working either!
  • the cell companies are ridiculous telling us how we can use a service we are paying them for.... data is data and the only thing that should matter is how much you use in total not what device is using it at that moment... i can't believe the government hasn't stepped in to stop the carriers from taking advantage of us and ripping us off, it is borderline criminal
  • My biggest problem with paying for data tethering is that it isn't used enough to justify the charger if i want it, yet it would be nice to have for the once in a while times I may use it. The general use of it is usually small by many, and is a replacement for the phone use due to the screen size. In other words, most of the times I would use it would be for a better screen size or functions my phone can't do. It wouldn't be any different then using the phones internet. I think there should be tiered data. If you use within a certain amount it's included, and every time you pass a certain amount (and this is only calculated for tethered data not all data) you get a charge. I'd like enough to be able to use a tablet once in a while.
  • I agree. I am rooted & can tether, but I honestly think the only times I have were sending out an important file on my laptop for work when our home internet was down & downloading a book onto my wife's Nook Color while inside the car when we were driving down to FL. The people who cancel their home internet because they can "tether for free" deserve to be caught. It's sad that they are bringing heat down on everyone because of their selfishness. Edit: On a somewhat unrelated topic, Why don't any of the carriers that have tiered data plans offer "Rollover data"? If I have a 4GB plan with VZW, why do I lose the 1.5GB if I only used 2.5? Or why not let us pre-pay for data & send me a text/e-mail when I am close to running out so I can purchase more. I think people will be less likely to abuse the system if we feel like the carriers aren't taking advantage of us by nickel & diming or not letting us keep what we already paid for.