How to Use Your Cell Phone as a Modem

One of the most common questions asked about mobile computing is how to connect a cell phone to a laptop for Internet access. Although tethering isn't very difficult to accomplish, the answer is a bit tricky because wireless carriers have different rules and plans for allowing (or not allowing) tethering, and cell phone models also have different limitations. When in doubt, it's always best to refer to your service provider and handset manufacturer for instructions ... but here's some information just to get you started.

What You Need

To use your cell phone as a modem, you need the following:

  1. The device you want to be able to go online with, of course (i.e., your laptop or tablet).

  2. A data-capable cell phone that you'll use as the modem (i.e., the cell phone should be able to go online on its own).

  3. A data plan for the phone from your wireless provider. Most cellular providers these days require you to have a data plan for your smartphone anyway, but regular (or feature) phones may also be web-capable and therefore can also act as modems for your laptop. You'll need to have a data plan for the phone, whether it's a cell phone or smartphone.

Tethering Options

There are a few ways to use tethering so you can go online from your laptop (or tablet) using your cell phone's data plan.

  • Tethering plans from your wireless carrier: This is the official way to get tethering. The major wireless providers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile) require you to have data plans that cover tethering or sign up for a separate hotspot plan. Once you've signed up for one of these plans, you can connect over bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or USB (see the links below for instructions for your carrier).
  • Apps: There are several mobile apps for tethering Android and other smartphones; some are free, with full versions of these apps priced $10 and $30. For that price you get an easy way to connect your laptop to your smartphone over USB or Bluetooth and use your smartphone's data service on your computer, bypassing carrier tethering fees perhaps. PdaNet is a popular tethering app for most platforms, and we have step-by-step instructions for tethering your Android phone to your laptop.
  • Jailbreaking for iPhone users: Apple pulls tethering apps from the iTunes store, but users who don't mind bending the rules can jailbreak their iPhones to use PdaNet too.

Tethering Instructions by Wireless Carrier

Find your provider below to get information on whether they allow tethering and how much it costs. If you're in the market for new cell phone service, read through all the profiles to find out which cell phone company is the most flexible when it comes to tethering.

AT&T has one of the most thorough websites, with a section on wireless laptop solutions as well as information on tethering handsets.

What You Need to Tether an AT&T Cell Phone

You can tether your AT&T iPhone or most other types of cell phones. To get started using your AT&T cell phone as a modem for your laptop or tablet:

  1. Check if your cell phone is on the list of LaptopConnect compatible cell phones.

  2. Updated AT&T data plans: Starting June 7, 2010, AT&T is allowing tethering on its new DataPro plans only, for $20 extra a month, but this does not include additional data usage — data accessed from your laptop count as part of the DataPro's 2GB limit."Grandfathered" customers who had a DataConnect Plan may be able to keep their existing tethering service, which starts at $20 for light users and goes up to $60 for 5GB of monthly usage (similar to AT&T's mobile broadband plans that allow laptop users to directly connect to the Internet using a network card).

    AT&T has a comparison chart of available rate plans for you to compare options. Note that the DataConnect plans are in addition to data plans needed for your smartphone or PDA and the amount of data you can access with the plan is limited, so tethering can be pricey.

  3. To tether your cell phone to your laptop, you can use either Bluetooth (if your laptop and cell phone are both Bluetooth-capable) or a cable (USB or serial), depending on your particular phone.

  4. Finally, you also need to install AT&T's Communication Manager software on your laptop; the software is also only compatible with Windows, though.

Once you have all these things in place, you can use AT&T's software on your laptop to initiate the connection to your cell phone and use it as a modem for going online. Be aware while you are using the service, though, of that data cap. You don't want to go over the limit and find huge fees on your next bill!

Note: AT&T also provides free basic service wi-fi access at their hotspots for DataConnect customers, an added bonus.

How to Use Your Verizon Cell Phone as a Modem

Verizon's Mobile Broadband webpage entices you to "unleash your phone's power" to use it as a portable modem to access the Internet on your notebook. Your mobile phone, they explain, already acts as a modem and pulls in a mobile broadband signal that your laptop can use. With a "Mobile Broadband Connect"-capable device (select smartphones or BlackBerry), a USB cable, and the VZAccess Manager software on your laptop, you can go online using your phone as a modem.

Verizon Pricing and Options

Sounds great. The only downside is that in addition to requiring a data plan for your smartphone (starting at $29.99), as with AT&T you also need to have a separate plan (from $15-30/month) for your laptop to be tethered ... and the data on this additional plan is metered (up to 5 GB of data usage allowed per month; after that, data is charged on a per MB basis). Verizon does have a $50/month plan for tethering data-capable cell phones (not smartphones) that only have voice service, though.

Another option is to use Verizon's mobile broadband hotspot service available on certain phones like the Palm Pre Plus or Pixi Plus. The service allows you to use the phone's data plan with up to 5 other devices — for free. You'll still need a data plan for the Palm phone, but you won't have to pay extra for the other devices to use it.

What You Need to Tether a Verizon Cell Phone

To get started using your Verizon cell phone as a modem for your laptop:

  1. Check if your cell phone is in the list of Mobile Broadband Connect compatible devices.

  2. Make sure you have a qualifying data and/or calling plan for your handset and add the Mobile Broadband Connect feature.

  3. Connect your cell phone to your laptop via USB. You may need a special adapter or Mobile Office Kit from Verizon, depending on your phone.

  4. Finally, install VZAccess Manager on your laptop; the software works with both Windows and Mac.

Use the VZAccess Manager software to go online from your laptop using your cell phone as a modem. As with all metered services, though, be aware of the data cap to make sure you don't go over it.

How to Use Your Sprint Cell Phone as a Modem

Sprint's official data policy about tethering does not allow using the phone as a modem without a specific plan:

Promotions, Options and Other Provisions Data...Except with Phone-as-Modem plans, you may not use a phone (including a Bluetooth phone) as  a modem in connection with a computer, PDA, or similar device. General Terms and Conditions of Service Specific Terms & Restrictions On Using Data Services In addition to the rules for using all of our other Services, unless we identify the Service or Device that you have selected as specifically intended for that purpose... If your Services include web or data access, you also can't use your Device as a modem for computers or other equipment, unless we identify the Service or Device you have selected as specifically intended for that purpose (for example, with " phone as modem" plans,  Sprint Mobile Broadband card plans, wireless router plans, etc.).

Sprint had a Phone as a Modem (PAM) data option back in 2008. Customers who still have this add-on are "grandfathered" and may still have the tethering option.

How to Go Online With Your Laptop Using Sprint PCS

Therefore, to access the Internet on your laptop over Sprint's network, you'll need to get a separate mobile broadband service plan for your laptop and either a mobile broadband network card or a portable mobile hotspot device.

How to Use Your T-Mobile Cell Phone as a Modem

Previously, T-Mobile didn't officially support tethering, but neither did they restrict users from tethering their cell phones. Since November 2010, however, T-Mobile has been officially supporting tethering — and charging for it. The phone tethering and wi-fi sharing plan runs on the low side of tethering charges among the major wireless carriers in the U.S., but still an extra charge that doesn't give you additional data usage.

How to Tether Your T-Mobile Cell Phone

T-Mobile instructs users to refer to their user forums to configure their phones as modems. The instructions reinforce the need for a data plan on your cell phone and link to phone-specific (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android, and Nokia) setup instructions.

An easy and universal way to set up tethering on your device, though, is to use an app like PdaNet, because you don't really need to change detailed settings. For more phone tweaking, the community at HowardForums is a fantastic resource as well.

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