Home Your Tech Mobility Why the iPhone SHOULD be a modem

Why the iPhone SHOULD be a modem

The current 2G model iPhone can’t officially be tethered to a notebook and then used as a wireless Internet connection, although hacker extraordinaire Nate True figured out how to do it anyway some time ago. But despite arguments that the iPhone’s data plan explains why it currently isn’t an official tethered modem, such arguments are nonsense: it’s my iPhone and I should be able to use it as a modem if desired, even if it costs me more money.

iTWire’s editor, Stan Beer, wrote an article earlier today titled ‘I need a 3G iPhone and a cheap sub-notebook’, which was followed up some time later by iTWire colleague Stephen Withers who proceeded to explain ‘Why an iPhone isn’t a modem’. 

Of course the iPhone IS a modem, or rather, has one inside. It wouldn’t be able to surf the web, do email, bring up Google Maps or let you watch YouTube videos otherwise.

Stephen went on to explain that while 2G iPhone has an ‘unlimited’ data plan, this was able to be prised from the carriers' grasp by Apple because data accessed through the iPhone was only ever meant to be used on the iPhone itself, and not wirelessly or through the iPhone’s USB cable with any other device.

The explanation is that the iPhone already uses large amounts of data. Let people use it as a wireless modem with their computers, and that data usage will go up exponentially – something carriers didn’t want to happen, especially when their plans were nominally ‘unlimited’.

The fact that the iPhone’s unlimited data plan (which isn’t strictly unlimited anyway, depending on which country you’re using an official iPhone in) wasn’t meant to be used with other devices doesn’t mean the iPhone can’t be used in this manner.

iBrickr creator Nate True showed how to do it months ago (while warning AT&T and other official providers might get very upset if they found out), although whether the slightly complex hack still works with the latest 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 iPhone firmware versions is unknown.

Virtually every other relatively smart 2G, 3G or 3.5G mobile phone can be tethered, via USB cable or using Bluetooth, to PCs and Macs. When used in this manner, wireless Internet access can be quite expensive – unless you are signed up to a mobile data plan.

In Australia, 3 Mobile went to market with an AUD $20 per month plan giving 500MB of downloads (with uploads counted towards the download limit), a $30 per month plan giving 1GB of data and $40 per month plan giving 2GB of data on X-Series compatible phones (which included phones such as the Nokia N95, the LG Shine and a range of others).

Even Australia’s dominant telco, Telstra, has a $59.95 monthly plan offering 400MB of data, a $89.95 monthly plan offering 1GB of data and a $114.95 monthly plan offering 3GB of data – with those prices available for PCMCIA/Expresscard and USB modems, or when using your existing 3G/3.5G mobile phone as a tethered modem. While these prices are expensive, they are much cheaper than the regular ‘casual’ pay-as-you-go wireless data plans.

So, why can’t Apple and their telco partners offer the same kind of deals to those who want it, or let users pay whatever the (likely expensive) ‘casual’ rate for wireless data? Please read onto page 2.

One possible reason why Apple didn’t want users to use their iPhones as tethered modems is the reality that an EDGE Internet connection, which is around 100Kbps in speed, is only around double the speed of a dial-up connection.

That means it’s slow, but if you were in a pinch and needed to access the Internet through your computer with a tethered iPhone, 100Kbps is better than zero Kbps.

Another reason is likely because modem use chews through battery life, and it seems Apple won’t let iPhone users surf the web via their EDGE connection while on a phone call. Of course, a removable battery would solve that problem, as would tethering through the iPhone’s USB cable which charges the iPhone’s battery, although at the expense of your notebook’s battery if you’re out and about and not connected to a power socket. 

I know this because I tried bringing up Safari while on a phone call using my iPhone, and got a message that EDGE was not available while the phone was on, with the exact message being ‘EDGE data connections are not available while a call is active’ – I know because I just checked again right now.

This is an Apple limitation, as I just made a call on my Nokia N95 and then proceeded to surf the web, with the two functions working seamlessly and smoothly.

The iPhone won’t even let you surf the web when you are connected to a Wi-Fi network and then decide to make a call – once again, I know, because I just tried it.

This is patently ridiculous. Why has Apple limited us so? Please read onto page 3.

What kind of a multitasking device is the iPhone if I can’t talk and surf at the same time? I can do it on the N95, checking up some fact in IMDB while chatting with a friend – but on the iPhone it’s a no go.

The only reason we can’t officially use the iPhone as a tethered modem is because Apple won’t let us, pure and simple.

Being able to ascertain whether the iPhone is being used as a tethered modem, and then being charged at a different rate or through a reasonably priced (unlike Telstra) monthly plan, over and above what I already pay, should be something the iPhone could figure out in software, and then report back to the telco.

If that’s not possible (and why not?) then there should be another way.

When the iPhone goes 3G, using it as a tethered modem should not be possible only through some jailbreak hack. It should be a standard feature of the iPhone. If carriers want to charge more and users accept the charges, that’s between the carrier and the user.

Apple should just get out of the way. Stop limiting us, Apple. Maybe the SDK launch on March 6, with the vaunted ‘enterprise features’, will see this feature enabled, or promised for a future 3G iPhone.

But given Apple’s controlling stance thus far, I won’t be holding my breath, although I expect the hackers will ‘make it so’ whether you like it, or not.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.