AT&T to Unauthorized Tetherers: Pay Up or Else

AT&T (s t) is tired of giving customers who are sharing their smartphones’ data plans via unauthorized tethering a free ride, BGR reports. The company is sending out emails, letters and text messages to users who are tethering their devices without paying for the service, letting them know that their free ride is over.

The news first came via users, who received emails explaining that AT&T had noticed that, though they have tethering capabilities, they aren’t subscribed to AT&T’s official tethering plan. AT&T confirmed this, and outlined three options for users who tether their smartphones without a plan:

  • Stop the unauthorized tethering and keep your current plan.
  • Sign up for the DataPro 4 GB Smartphone Tethering plan, which costs $45 per month ($25 for smartphone data and $20 for tethering) by March 27.
  • Do nothing and be automatically enrolled in the DataPro 4 GB plan beginning March 27.

Users who have grandfathered unlimited plans will have to either give up the plan in order to get tethering, or discontinue the practice altogether to keep their unlimited usage. AT&T doesn’t explain how it’s discovering which customers are using tethering, or why it’s policing the practice now. It may be fairly easy to spot heavy usage patterns or identify the source of traffic on AT&T’s end, and it might also be that the company was content to leave things alone until unauthorized tethering became a significant problem. The availability of MyWi for jailbroken iOS (s aapl) devices makes it incredibly easy to tether an iPhone, for instance, and it’s also not hard to root an Android (s goog) device and install a tethering app, no matter your network provider’s restrictions.

AT&T must be confident about its methods for identifying tethering users since it’s planning to automatically switch users to its official tethering plan beginning March 27 if unauthorized access continues. I don’t see this going down so well with customers, many of whom could try to argue that they weren’t tethering, or that someone else had enabled the feature on their device without their knowledge (“My kid jailbroke my iPhone to get network access on his iPod touch while we were on vacation,” for example).

I understand AT&T wanting to protect its network and its bottom line by cracking down on bandwidth hogs, but it’ll be interesting to see whether this hardline approach ultimately does more to harm customer goodwill than it does to hinder unapproved usage.