It’s rumored that AT&T may soon allow people to tether their iPhones to their portable computers and use them as 3G modems for an extra $10 a month. Now that’s a wonderful idea — in theory. If it does indeed happen, though, you can expect one […]

It’s rumored that AT&T may soon allow people to tether their iPhones to their portable computers and use them as 3G modems for an extra $10 a month. Now that’s a wonderful idea — in theory. If it does indeed happen, though, you can expect one thing — your 3G iPhone may behave like a Ferrari with flat tires. Like an overloaded mule walking up a mountain trail, AT&T’s 3G network is already buckling under the strain of its many iPhone users.

You know what I’m talking about: at least once a day I get blue in the face because the network is so slow. And now imagine if hundreds of thousands of iPhone users signed up to use iPhone as a way to connect to the Internet and surf the web, check emails, watch videos and swap big files. You would have a lot of traffic flowing through AT&T’s pipes. “So what?” you might think, “AT&T has a 3G network that’s supposed to be fast.” Not quite!

Just because we have 3G phones (and networks) doesn’t mean we can get higher speeds. That’s just not the case. Most of us connect to a cell-tower, which in turn has a base station that’s connected to the phone company’s network. This connection between a base station and the wireless operator’s network is over (multiple) T-1 lines. Bandwidth coming into a base station — anywhere between 1.5 Mbps to 7.5 Mbps — is shared by people who are connecting through that base station. And that’s not enough to support blazing fast speeds for all the current iPhone users, much less the new tethering users.

Sure, there are some who are experimenting with microwave technology and deploying a Gigabit Ethernet connections, but the fact of the matter is that the backhaul networks of today are woefully ill-equipped for a real wireless broadband future. That is one of the reasons why demand for wireless backhaul equipment is on an upswing. Research firm Infonetics predicts that phone companies around the world will spend $10 billion by 2011 to make sure you can get your 3G fix on an iPhone.

But all that is going to take sometime. Sure, tethering is a great idea, and I want it now. But I also want to get 3G speeds, and this effort may disappoint.

Related stories:

1. New iPhone will jumpstart wireless broadband
2. Is iPhone’s 3G connection a disappointment
3. 4G Wireless & the ensuing bandwidth boom

  1. I disagree.

    The option to have moderately fast Internet anywhere beats the slightly faster than a modem (EDGE) option. We are headed towards ubiquitous 3G, so AT&T really doesn’t have a choice but to improve backhaul network capacity.

    It may be painful at first, but such is the plight of early adopters. :)

  2. Leonid

    you are missing the point — the back end of AT&T is still old school despite all the fancy 3G networks. Put more load on this and you will be surfing at WAP speed unless they improve their backhaul networks drastically

  3. I don’t think that this is an AT&T problem. Sure, they have the most popular feature phone on the market, and it’s straining their network, but I don’t think their connection speeds are that much worse than Verizon and Sprint.

    The real problem is that we have 3 different, incompatible nation-wide networks, all of which are a decade behind the rest of the world. We have 3 companies slowly building out infrastructure, resulting in mediocre coverage and lackluster speeds no matter which network you’re on.

    It would be nice if the competition made things better, but it doesn’t. We basically have 3 monopolies, each with abusive pricing (text messaging?), and terrible service.

  4. I am not missing the point, Om, notice the terminology used. :)

    Yes, it’s old-school at the moment, but improving it is not complicated. Motorola has a solution already – http://broadband.motorola.com/ips/pdf/Cellular_Backhaul.pdf

    Besides, markets with 3G fully deployed can’t possibly be on T1s at this stage anymore.

    I remember the oversubscribed dialup lines from 1990s, so this is really nothing new. At first we had different tiers of providers. Competition forced everyone to upgrade to 56K V.90 evenfually. K56Flex was interesting in the meantime. But what most people may not know is how that was accomplished – ISPs upgraded to DS-1 termination equipment.

    Now we are witnessing the same change. Except this time it’s the DS-1 circuits that are no longer adequate for data (GSM is a rather thrifty codec in terms of voice quality, which is why you only need 13kbps to transmit it) and metro Ethernet is replacing it. http://www.fatpipemagazine.com/articles.php?issue_id=32&article_id=164

    In terms of profit, providing pure voice is a lot more profitable than having to provide all that high speed data. Unfortunately for them, we want more for less. :)

  5. Would now be a good time to invest in companies that provide wireless back-haul equipment??

  6. Why not take this as an opportunity to visit Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, or a number of other European countries where 3G broadband has been working just fine for quite some time now.

  7. Why is it I keep hearing claims that this tiny portion of users (yes, check the stats) can affect the entire network? If this tethering were allowed for Windows Mobile users which account for a MUCH larger group of users (yes, check the stats again) then I could understand concern about bringing a whole network down. Just because the iphone has more hype and more people yelling about it, does NOT mean there are more users.

  8. [...] the original:  iPhone Tethering? Be Careful What You Wish For!SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “iPhone Tethering? Be Careful What You Wish For!”, url: [...]

  9. Jacob Varghese Monday, January 12, 2009


    While the iPhone makes up a smaller percentage of smartphones, the users make up a much larger percentage of mobile web usage.

    “Combined, the iPhone and iPod Touch represent 15.5 percent of all worldwide requests. In the U.S., the iPhone OS (if you include the iPod Touch) now accounts for 48 percent of the smartphone market.”

    I have an e71 and I am quite envious of the mobile web experience on the iPhone.

  10. When AT&T Wireless was Cingular, around 10 years ago, their network couldn’t support voice traffic for the accounts they sold, resulting in dropped calls and “person not available – try again later” messages for those trying to call Cingular phones. They didn’t listen to customer complaints, so they and SPRINT were sued by the FCC to stop them from selling more accounts until their networks could support them. When they became AT&T they increased prices (for call forwarding) in the middle of customer contracts and then refused to refund equipment costs for those who wouldn’t accept the changes. Then they wouldn’t return positive balances after customers disconnected until the customers threatened to sue.

    AT&T’s problems aren’t those of an early adopter (plenty of real early adopters in Japan, Korea and Europe). It is a company to be avoided where possible.


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