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ATPM 15.08
August 2009


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Tethering a Mac to Your Cell Phone

Earlier this summer, my wife and I spent almost two weeks on an extended road trip through part of the American Southwest. In preparation for that trip, I made a remarkable discovery: my traveling habits have changed dramatically since the last time I made such a trip. I think I spent more time prepping and packing the digital gear than I did packing clothes.

As part of trip preparation, I decided to try to ensure that we had Internet access every step of the way. I was preparing a podcast episode and needed not only to pass on a few files to the rest of the team, but also stay in contact with them as well. My wife also wanted to keep in touch with a few friends via e-mail and perhaps play a bit of World of Warcraft. At first glance, this appeared to be an easy task since all the hotels we were staying in advertised “in-room” wireless Internet access, but if you’ve been following my columns for a while, you know that when it comes to technology I can’t resist asking “What if…?” In this case the question was, “What if the hotel Internet access is unavailable or otherwise unreliable?” I needed a backup plan.

I didn’t want a new dialup account as a backup. We don’t do enough extended trips to justify that; besides, it would have meant making long distance calls from the hotel. I have used my cell phone alone to access the Internet, but I hate entering data on cell phones. Besides, no World of Warcraft there, so I wanted something more.

I knew it was possible to access the Internet using your computer via a cell phone account, and that seemed like the best option. Keep reading and I’ll describe some of your options and some questions you need to have answered before making your decision. This is an overview rather than the step-by-step instructions you have come to expect, because the information needed will vary depending upon your particular cell phone, carrier, and data plan.

Connection Options

I had never used my mobile account to access the Internet from my computer, but surely someone had created an option to make this easy for Mac users. After a little research I concluded that the most likely options were broadband access through your cell phone account and cell phones used as modems.

Cellular-based Broadband Access usually requires additional hardware in the form of a broadband modem that connects the computer to a provider’s cellular network. These devices are usually either USB or card slot based. Card slot based options are available for both PCMCIA and ExpressCard slots, so choose the one that matches your computer’s interface. There are some cards, such as The AirCard 402 that fit either type of slot via an adapter.

Using your existing cell phone as a modem, often referred to as “tethering” or “phone as modem,” uses your existing cell phone to provide an Internet connection for your computer. In order for tethering to work it must be supported by your phone, carrier, and cell phone plan. As users of the new iPhone 3GS can attest, just because the phone supports tethering does not mean the provider or data plans support it as well.

Asking the Right Questions from the Internet and Tech Support

Before you can decide whether to spend money on a wireless broadband modem, make sure you know your present phone’s limits. Do it and your provider both support tethering? If tethering is supported, what speeds is it capable of attaining in the area where you will be using the phone? Some phone and network combinations appear to be capable only of 56K modem speed at best. Is that going to be fast enough to meet your needs? It’s fast enough for e-mail and light Web surfing, but if you are interested in media intensive activities such as gaming, tethering may not be your best option.

You may be able to get this information from your cellular provider, but many Mac users find it easier to consult the Internet first. Try a search that includes your phone’s make and model and the name of your provider. This should get you at least some of the necessary information. Once you decide to contact tech support, keep asking questions until you get the necessary information. If reports that I have read are correct, some tech support staff don’t fully understand “tethering” so it may take a while.

While you are looking for the necessary information, keep an eye out for any indication that your phone needs to be manually put into data mode before you can use it as your computer’s modem. Some posts may mention a particular numeric code that must be entered from the dial pad. There may also be software that will accomplish this for you. I am currently using USB Modem to connect my Palm OS–based phone. You may have to specifically ask your provider about this. I spent more than two hours on the phone with my provider trying to get this process working under Mac or Windows. We never got it working under Windows so he decided to try the Mac side. After about half an hour of that, we must have gotten “disconnected” because he never came back to the phone. I realized later that while we were testing the configuration from the Mac side I don’t remember being asked to put the phone into data mode.

What Does the Wireless Broadband Modem Cost?

Whether it’s USB or card-based, when purchasing a broadband cellular modem from your carrier, look to spend anywhere from less than $100 to several hundred dollars depending upon what deals/rebates are being offered. The best prices are usually contingent upon upgrading/extending your current contract. My provider was even willing to give me a free card modem if I extended my current contract an additional two years. I decided against this option because the new iPhones are calling my name when my current contract expires. Some of these cards are available cheaper through third parties, but take care to make sure the card you are interested in will work with your carrier. Make sure your chosen vendor has a reasonable return policy.

Which Wireless Broadband Modem Should I Choose?

Most U.S. cellular providers have several broadband options on their Web site, either card slot or USB-based options. If you are opting for a broadband card, find out which ones will function with OS X and fit the slot on your computer. Although some providers have this information on their Web site, the information is not always accurate. From what I have encountered, some of the modem cards which do not list OS X drivers will actually work with little or no modification.

When it comes to solving this issue, be prepared to do some independent research. There may be problems using some modems with your Mac that your provider’s tech support staff may not be aware of. For example, USB-based modems avoid the issue of choosing a correct card slot, but some of those same modems would block access to both USB ports on some Macs. These modems usually work when attached to a USB extension cable, but it’s nice to know that ahead of time.

I Decided to Use Tethering—How Do I Make It Work?

If you have read this far, you’ve decided that tethering might be a viable option. Assuming that your phone and carrier support this option, you’re almost home. All that is left to do is locate the correct username and password, connect your phone to the computer, configure the appropriate settings in Network preferences, and put the phone into data mode before connecting to the Internet.

Tethering your cell phone to the Mac is a bit like connecting and configuring a dialup network connection. In most cases, you are going to need to know the correct username and password. Typically the username and password used for tethering is not the same as any password you may have been given to access Web services and e-mail. Some providers leave these fields blank. If you didn’t find this information mentioned in your earlier Internet search, contact your provider’s tech support.

After you have chosen the method to connect your phone to the Mac, launch System Preferences and select the Network pane. In the left pane, select your connection type (Bluetooth or USB). In the right pane, enter the phone number, account name (username), and password required by your provider. While you are here, you might find it helpful to check the option to put the modem status in the menu bar. This will make connecting easier later.

The next step is to connect the Mac to your cell phone. I used a USB cable for the connection, but many cell phones which support tethering will also function via Bluetooth over short distances. If you are going to attempt to use Bluetooth for the connection, consult your phone’s manual for the specific steps to follow during pairing.

Before we attempt to connect to the Internet, be aware that some phones need to be put into data mode first. Although you can often accomplish this using a dial code punched in manually via the keypad, I chose to use third-party software. Once your phone is in data mode, all that is left to do is choose your connection from the menu bar and wait for the connection to complete.

What’s It Going to Cost?

Whether you choose tethering or broadband modem access, most carriers are going to require that you have a data plan. Make sure you understand the terms and limitations of your plan. Does your carrier require an additional charge for wireless broadband access? Do they charge an additional per-month fee for tethering? The answer in both cases is probably yes. In other words, you will likely pay for a data plan and pay an additional fee for either broadband access or tethering.

While you are asking about costs, be aware that some data plans have a limit or “cap” on the amount of data that can be downloaded in any given billing period. This “cap” is typically around 5 GB per month. Once that cap is exceeded, additional data usually costs a few cents per kilobyte. While 5 GB may sound like a lot of data, it can disappear quickly for heavy users. The provider may tell you that they do not charge extra for occasionally exceeding the “cap”—the bottom line is that they could.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, tethering can be a daunting process. I spent several hours scouring the Net for the information I needed for the Palm Centro and testing the setup. Much of that time could have been saved if I had realized that my cellular provider had never added “Phone as Modem” to my data plan despite assuring me that it had been added. Tech support tried valiantly but wasn’t very helpful. We spent most of the more than two-hour-long support call attempting to get this working on my Boot Camp installation of XP. We never got that working, and the last half hour or so of Mac work could have been avoided if I had remembered to put my phone in data mode before attempting a connection to the Internet.

We used this feature a little bit during out trip, especially during the three days were were completely without WiFi access in the middle of Phoenix, Arizona. We never attempted World of Warcraft because of the speeds we were achieving. We also didn’t use it nearly enough to justify the amount of time and energy this project required. I hope you will profit from my experiences.

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Reader Comments (14)

Oliver Texeira · August 2, 2009 - 23:12 EST #1
YMMV, but I have had little difficulty connecting with my MacBookPro (OS 10.5.6) and my Sprint Blackberry Curve using built-in Bluetooth on both. Adding data to my Blackberry plan cost $15 a month. It is very useful for checking e-mail and light surfing/commenting when I'm on the road, and even saves me charges at hotels with pay-to-play internet.

Once both are configured, connection is simply a matter of opening the MBP, choosing the Bluetooth/Blackberry connection via the modem icon, and getting online. In areas with a good Sprint signal, I sometimes just leave the Blackberry in my belt holster and it looks like I'm connecting by magic.

My wife uses a Verizon USB data modem to connect her MacBook. Again, configuration was straightforward using VZ Access Manager, which comes with the modem or is a free download.

We are about to switch to a Verizon MiFi, which combines the data modem and a small WiFi hotspot in a single device, allowing up to five computers to get online if they are within 30 feet or so of the device.

I haven't started using the MiFi yet, so I can't report on how well it works, but using the Verizon USB modem last year we drove from Texas to western New York and were only out of range of a signal for brief periods in the eastern mountains.

I'm hoping the MiFi will provide the same quality of cellular access, but make connecting easier via WiFi for our computers, iPhone, and even our iPod Touch.

Based on my experience only, tethering is more convenient (you usually have your phone already with you) and is cheaper, but the dedicated data modem seems to deliver faster and more reliable connections at greater cost (approx. $60/month) I see that Sprint now has an occasional use plan - $15 for a 24-hour period - but I'm not sure which modems or phones support such a plan.

Incidentally, iPhones do not yet support tethering - at least officially - but are supposed to get that capability later this year.
M Geiger · August 2, 2009 - 23:23 EST #2
I'd really like hard information on cost/mo, and is it possible to share the connection with another computer?

I pay $80/mo for 1.5 mbps satellite connection (not considered broadband by the FCC) and would like to know if wireless boadband is an option for people with no other option. AT&T offers 3G here now, but I can't seem to find straight answers about cost, connection, etc.
Oliver Texeira · August 2, 2009 - 23:27 EST #3
One more note on buying and configuring data modems - the most reliable source of information I've found is

I'm not associated with that company except as a customer, but I've found their support vastly superior to the various cellular providers and more up to date.
Oliver Texeira · August 2, 2009 - 23:54 EST #4
re. M Geiger's question. I live out in the boondocks east of Austin myself, and use a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) instead of satellite. It's the Internet over radio waves, broadcast line-of-sight from central towers. My receiver looks like a translucent medium-sized pizza box on a pole on my roof and the signal comes into my house on an Ethernet cable and is distributed via an AirPort Extreme.

I checked a moment ago via and am getting 2.54 MBps down and 1 MBps up. Although I have excellent uptime and service and so does a pal west of Austin who uses a different WISP, my impression is that quality varies dramatically among providers. My WISP charges $49.97 a month.

Using phone-as-modem and tethering my MacBook Pro, I think I get about 800 kbps down at best, but I am outside the range of Sprint's high-speed service at my house and must rely on their so-called "National" broadband connection. As I said, cost of adding the data package to my Blackberry package was an additional $15 a month, but the underlying basic Blackberry service (with 450 minutes of primetime voice) is around $70 a month,
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · August 3, 2009 - 00:12 EST #5
Oliver, I hope I didn't give the wrong impression of how difficult this is to do. Once I found the right information online I was able to connect without calling tech support but couldn't maintain the connection for more than a few seconds at a time. Apparently my problem maintaining the connection was that the Phone as Modem option had not been added to my data plan as I had been told. . The bulk of the tech call was to address Windows XP issues which never got resolved.

As you said making the connection is pretty easy. My connection costs are in line with yours. In my case I might change to an occasional use plan-most of the time I have reliable wifi access.
Oliver Texeira · August 3, 2009 - 00:30 EST #6
Apparently my problem maintaining the connection was that the Phone as Modem option had not been added to my data plan as I had been told

I didn't mean to suggest that my tech skills are all that special - mostly I just flail around until it seems to work.

I ran into exactly the same problem you had, with Verizon, a few years ago - their computers were failing to recognize that I had a tethering plan, and I got the same dropped-call experience that you had. In my case, I just had better luck finding a knowledgeable Verizon tech, but that was purely luck.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · August 3, 2009 - 01:24 EST #7
"I didn't mean to suggest that my tech skills are all that special - mostly I just flail around until it seems to work."

My secret is finally out. Being primarily self-taught I also follow this method. My wife refers to it as the "Poke it with a sharp stick method."
anonymous · August 3, 2009 - 08:36 EST #8
Re: WISP. There is a service like that out here, but apparently if someone else's antenna goes out between yours and the main one, you are out of luck and the company doesn't respond well- there are a lot of lawsuits against them at the moment, because they go weeks without a connection, but the company insists on autopay and they get billed regardless..

My husband's Verizon usb modem works great down in San Diego, then he brought it home to the high desert here east of Los Angeles, and there is zero connection. No Sprint or any other company unless you live along a narrow stretch of highway (which is why travellers tend to have good experiences when they are on the road). So AT&T is our only option. I will try the evdo link (I checked into it several years ago, but there was no G3 back then), hopefully I can find information that doesn't seem purposely obfuscated by the wireless companies.

It would be great if AT&T also offered something like the MiFi.

It is also great that we are all Mac people, it tends to make it hard to find useful information when it is all Windows oriented.
M Geiger · August 3, 2009 - 10:02 EST #9
I just checked the evdo page and followed a link to Verizon's data map. According to the map, my house is well within range, but my husband's usb modem says there is zero connectivity of any kind. This is what is so frustrating. Ever since cell phones have become ubiquitous, we have run into this issue of promises of excellent signal strength only to be disappointed, even expereinced signal degradation after cellco's were no longer obligated to rent tower space to each other.

I have asked AT&T in the past about data signal strength (at the time, my home was on the edge of their coverage map), and all they could recommend was signing up and paying for a contract, buying the hardware and seeing if I had a signal. If not, then they will refund my money. Anyone who has try to get their money back from a telco knows how frustrating this can be. Personally, I find this solution unreasonable, and it's kept me from trying the service out.
Oliver Texeira · August 3, 2009 - 23:19 EST #10
I understand your frustration. For several years, I used ISDN because it was the only option in my neck of the woods. My WISP has provided exceptional service but, as I said, there are many who seem to be incompetent. also has some information on signal boosting antennas, if that might change your luck. They also are allied with CradlePoint routers, which provide wired or wireless distribution of a cell signal, if you can get one.

They have been pretty helpful on the phone, as well.

If I were you, I think I would risk buying an AT&T device from one of their retail centers, keeping the receipt, and trying the service. I've had good luck simply returning devices that didn't work out, then canceling the service. It's more like dealing with a regular retail store than a TelCo that way, and I've never had a problem.
anonymous · August 3, 2009 - 23:49 EST #11
Thanks for the input. AT&T just opened a store here a few months ago, sounds like it is worth checking out. I've never been able to deal with a regular store before.
Oliver Texeira · August 4, 2009 - 00:01 EST #12
Oh, and one more thing, (as Steve Jobs would say) ...I found this list of California WISP companies that might help in your search for a solution.
OliverTexeira · August 4, 2009 - 00:09 EST #13
And just to make sure that my experience is not unique in the universe, be sure and ask at the retail store about the return policy (usually 30 days, but sometimes as little as 15)

Almost all devices are partly subsidized by the TelCo providing the service, and you want to make sure you will not be hit with an early cancellation fee simply for returning a device that couldn't get a good signal.
anonymous · August 4, 2009 - 09:54 EST #14
When I asked AT&T last year, during a call over another issue (this was before they opened a store here), they said there was a 30 day period to cancel. I'm just reluctant to do business through a call center,for obvious reasons. ( I am the author of #11, btw)

I checked out, and there aren't any wisps listed in my area. The prices vary wildly too

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