Can my wireless carrier tell if I'm using my phone as a wifi hotspot?

This came up when I was driving with my daughter and she said she wished we had wifi in the car for her ipod touch so she could message her facebook friends on the trip.

So that got me thinking: I have an android phone with a wifi hot spot app (built in as part of Froyo I believe) and a typical 5GB data plan. What I don’t have is a separate tethering plan that most carriers (including mine – US Cellular) seem to require.

What I can find on the US Cellular web site seems focused on tethering your phone to a PC, and is a bit unclear on just turning your phone into a hot spot every once in a while so other devices can share the data connection.

So if I were to turn on the wifi hot spot feature, would they be able to tell? Would I get in trouble? Or does it even matter? As it is, I never come close to using the 5GB cap I pay for each month right now. So adding another $25 per month for a tethering plan seems ridiculous and would amount to me paying twice for the privilege of using the same small amount of data. But I also don’t want to run afoul of the rules.

So any ideas? Anyone else in the same boat?

The short answer to your question is yes, they can tell. Assuming you are not hacking anything.

I have Verizon and an HTC Thunderbolt, which is an Android phone with a hotspot feature. Verizon charges $20 per month to use the hotspot feature (basically this is wireless tethering) with a max of 2G of data per month. When I bought the phone I did not sign up for that feature. Just for kicks I tried it, and it worked. I called to make sure I wasn’t going to get charged for it and they said it was a free promotion. At the end of the promotion I tried it again and now the phone gives me a screen that tells me to call Verizon to activate the feature. So they can control whether the feature works or not.

I also cannot tether with a cable direct to my PC.

My guess is that if you turn on the hotspot feature it will not even work. Or it will work and you will then get billed for it; depends on how US Cellular sets it up.

You might want to try pdanet application. I used on my BB Storm for about a year or two. Worked pretty good. They have Android apps too.

Now the BB does not have wifi, and I used this to connect to my netbook via USB.

It’s a one time fee of like $15. There is a free trial. Pretty easy to set up.

I ended up having problems with it with win 7 though I and broke down and bought a mifi hot spot.

ETA - Don’t know if the provider could tell. I rarely use my phone. But when I do, iit was on the pdanet. I had no problems.

Is there an app that’ll tell your daughter “HEY! Quit trying to Facebook and look out the window. Or better yet, talk to your dad!”

I’d pay whatever it cost…

Thanks for the info. I kind of figured I may be out of luck. Oh well, it’s not a big priority for me, but more of a “it would be cool if I could do that” kind of thing. But not cool enough where I’m going I’m going to pay $25 bucks a month more for it.

I have heard of pdanet so maybe I’ll check that out.

I’m not exactly sure how they can tell unless you use their proprietary application to pull it off. Can someone explain this?

It’s not like the mobile web and the real web use anything different. Sure, you might use more full sized sites instead of mobile ones, but a lot of people use the full sized sites anyways.

If I’m right, I’m guessing that pdanet is just an application that costs money, rather than freeware. If that’s the case, there is likely a freeware alternative. This Google search holds promise.

@Bottle of Smoke: If you use a tethering app or root your phone for free WiFi tethering, they COULD tell if they really wanted to, but chances are they won’t look into it unless you start using large amounts of data (streaming videos, gaming, etc.). An occasional glance at Facebook would probably fly under the radar.

@BigT: There’s a cheaper alternative called EasyTether ($10, same function as PDANet). The free trials of both programs let you view all sites except secure ones (https).

As for how they can tell, network traffic from a computer is noticeably different from network traffic from phones. In general, computers:

  • Use much more bandwidth (send and receive more data)
  • Have a different browser “user agent” identifier that’ll say, for example, Windows XP instead of Android
  • Run apps that smartphones generally don’t have… certain browser plugins, automatic updates (when was the last time your phone tried to update Windows?), etc.

These all leave obvious traces that carriers can look for if they really wanted to (though I’m not sure if they’re legally allowed to). You could hypothetically hide all the evidence through a combination of software tweaks and routing network traffic through a third-party encrypted proxy (i.e., a VPN), but that requires a bit of know-how.

That said, even though they can tell, they usually don’t bother. Unpaid tethering usually flies under the radar until you start racking up a lot of data every month, and then at that point they’ll usually send you a letter or call you and tell you to stop or switch to a paid tethering plan.