On Tethering, A Response to James Kendrick

Posted on 05 April 2011, Last updated on 05 April 2011 by

I’ve actually been wanting to post this for a while but James Kendrick of ZDNet has finally given me the motivation to do so. Kendrick is a long-time tech writer, formerly of JKonTheRun.com, and I’ve been reading his work for years. It is possible, however, to disagree with someone that you respect. Kendrick’s recent article about tethering at ZDNet is a perfect example.

While he claims to just be the messenger, I believe that Kendrick is promoting fallacious arguments in his article. His thesis is:

…if your carrier asks you to pay for the right to tether (called mobile hotspot), and you manage to do so without enrolling in (and paying for) this plan, then you are stealing service from your carrier.

Aside from fallacious argumentation, Kendrick’s fail-safe is the argument that no matter how you cut it, the carrier’s terms-of-service dictate how you can or cannot use their service (obviously the TOS is written in their favor). However, just because something is written down in a TOS doesn’t make it right, and that’s really the point that we’re arguing here – whether or not it’s right for carriers to charge people extra for tethering, not what they’ve written in their TOS.

In response, I’m publishing a brief term paper that I wrote last year for an English class. While my target audience wasn’t those that are especially knowledgeable about data plans and tethering, I did my best to make the argument understandable to the everyday consumer, which is the vast majority of cellular users, and thus, those that need to understand the issue at hand before change can happen. I’d love for you to read both Kendrick’s piece and my own paper and leave your thoughts here for discussion.

Before you begin reading – Kendrick uses a cable TV analogy to explain his rationale (as I do in my own paper), but I feel that this usage is way off, and I’d like to correct it before we move on. According to Kendrick:

This is no different than the cable theft of old, using unofficial means to get cable TV service without paying the cable company. Most of us don’t like the cable company due to the high fees they charge, but we pay them anyway because to do otherwise is stealing the service. Stealing service like cable thieves is exactly what unpaid tetherers are doing.

This analogy is misleading because customers are already paying for ‘cable TV service’ (the metaphor for a data plan). Continuing the analogy: customers already pay for service, they just want to plug their cable line into a bigger TV, and do cable companies charge more for that? Of course not. Customers are free to plug the service that they pay for into any TV they’d like. Similarly, customers should be able to plug the service that they pay for (data service) into any device that they’d like. You are only paying for specific amount of product (the data coming down the line). By plugging the cable line into a bigger TV, you aren’t getting any additional service from the service provider. Even if you splice your connection to 10 different TV’s, you aren’t getting 10 times the product, you are dividing the product by 10 (if you actually tried to do this, you’ll find that the picture becomes increasingly fuzzy) because you aren’t bringing any additional service down the line by simply plugging it into a different, or multiple TVs. Similarly, if you share your data connection to 10 devices, you aren’t getting 10 times the product. You are dividing the bandwidth by 10 and no additional data is coming down the line over what you are already paying for.

You’ll see that I expand upon this analogy in my paper, and it should be clear why carriers shouldn’t be charging us more for no additional product.

Also another note before I begin: my paper focuses on AT&T because they are the carrier that I use, and the one that I have done the most research on. Things have changed slightly since I wrote the paper (such as the elimination of “unlimited inch data plans), but I’m still using a grandfathered “unlimited inch plan and I’m certain that many others are as well. These issues also apply to pretty much every carrier US carrier that I know of.

Also note that my unmodified title (written just about a year ago) is almost the perfect polar opposite of Kendrick’s!

So here we go:

If You Use Your Phone to Tether on AT&T, They Are Stealing From You

Allow me to propose to you, dear reader, a scenario. You go to the supermarket and pick up an apple. You pay $3.00 for the apple and then go home. Now you have two choices. You can eat the apple, or give the apple to a friend. Unfortunately, giving the apple to a friend will require that you pay the supermarket an additional $5, on top of the $3 that you already payed to purchase the apple. This doesn’t sound one bit fair, does it? You’d probably be pretty mad at the supermarket for attempting to impose an additional fee on you for a product that you’ve already purchased. It doesn’t matter whether you eat the apple, or your friend eats the apple, it’s still just an apple, right? So how can the supermarket justify charging you an extra fee for giving the apple to your friend? It can’t justify it at all, and even a five year old would find flaw with that logic. And yet for some odd reason, people allow the cellphone carrier, AT&T, to get away with something very similar every single day. Every single day, AT&T charges customers extra money for something that they’ve already paid for, just to use it in a different way. And perhaps what’s worse is that they seem to get away with it, without anyone questioning the practice.

Continue reading on page 2…

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