Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Thoughts on Tethering: How to keep and improve its flexibllity and usefulness

Tethering (using an iPhone or other smartphone to connect a laptop to the cellular data network) is a feature I use frequently. I use it when I am waiting for one of my kids to finish a sporting event, when waiting in a garage for car service to be complete, or when on a train trip – it is currently far faster and more reliable than Via Rail's free WiFi for example. I also us it when a passenger on a car trip. For example, when working on a pressing deadline I maintained an almost continuous Internet session on a road trip from Ottawa to London down the 401 highway. I also sometimes find myself using tethering when parked at a parking lot to do a quick task that requires my laptop.

Luckily my wireless data provider (Rogers) doesn't currently charge extra for tethering, or restrict it entirely, as is the case with providers in some countries. It would annoy me tremendously if they decided to change this policy and treat tethering usage as a separate billable item. All I am doing, after all, is using up some of my allocation of data usage. I think all data usage should be treated the same and billed in the same way. I do find it acceptable to throttle connections that try to maximise bandwidth use on a 3G network for extended periods (e.g. video download for extended periods) if total bandwidth at a cell tower (on the cable to the tower, or from the tower to connected devices) is near capacity. However, that should not affect how the data usage is billed.

My ISP sells separate USB devices for Internet access. It seems a waste to have to get one of these when you have a perfectly good smartphone that can do the job. I would not want to carry around another device that happens to be small enough to get lost easily.

Tethering can be done on iOS using a USB cable or a Bluetooth connection. I normally use a cable since it is distinctly faster. iOS is purportdly going to offer instant WiFi hotspot capability in the next release; essentially this amounts to a capability to tether up to three devices at once. This would certainly be useful in many contexts, such as enabling two people on a train to work together. Many iOS apps for sharing data require both devices to be on the same WiFi network. Hopfully the WiFi hotspot capability would also work for these apps. I would like it if you could create a WiFi hotspot when not even connected to a data network. For example, it could be used in a foreign country or the wilderness  just to share data between several devices. We will see what level of flexibility Apple comes up with. I hope they won't be too much influenced by the demands of cellular carriers.

There is one thing, that currently bothers me about tethering on the iPhone: Whenever I connect my computer to the phone to charge it or back it up, a tethering session is established. I can turn tethering off, but then I have to painstakingly turn it on and back off again repeatedly. On the flip side, whenever I connect my computer to the phone to initiate tethering, iTunes initiates a synchronization/backup session. Finer control is needed. I therefore suggest the following behaviour should be implemented in iOS:
  • There should be an option when you turn on tethering in iOS to declare: 'Do not activate tethering when connected to a WiFi network'. If my phone is connected to a WiFi network, I can most of the time directly connect my computer. This would prevent unnecessary tethering when at home or work.
  • There should be an option in iTunes that says, 'Sync iPhone automatically at most once per n hours.' I think 2 would be a good default for n, but the user could easily adjust this, and can always sync manually.

No comments:

Post a Comment