iPhone/Notebook Tethering Possible, but Policies Unclear

So your smartphone gets 6 GB (or “unlimited”, or similar) of mobile data a month at 3G speeds, but your web and email use barely dents that quota. What’s to be done? You can start photo-documenting your daily commute, or streaming internet radio at the beach, but more usefully you could use that mobile data with your other mobile device: a notebook* computer. Tethering is the act of using a phone’s mobile data through a notebook, making that data plan considerably more useful.

Last week, an app called NetShare, by Nullriver Software of Ontario, was posted to the iTunes App Store. For $9.99, this app effectively turned your iPhone into a portable Wifi hotspot that you could connect a notebook to. Less than a day later, the app was removed. Then they put it back. Then they removed it a second time. In a post dated yesterday, Nullriver writes

“We’ve finally gotten in contact with Apple. Looks like the lack of communication was due to automated e-mail systems being employed on both ends, which resulted in e-mails being lost in transit. We’re working with Apple to get NetShare back up on the AppStore.”

NetShare isn’t back yet, and a likely reason for this kerfuffle is that AT&T’s terms of service prohibit tethering, except with a (more expensive) plan specifically for the purpose. Rogers doesn’t seem to provide any official statement, though folks on iPhone forums claim that Rogers representatives have told them tethering is allowed (unfortunate how we have to rely on the word of call centre reps as corporate policy).  A key difference is that AT&T’s iPhone plans are unlimited data, whereas Rogers might be happy to charge 50c per MB for exceeding your limit.

It’s worth noting that the same tethering functionality can be accomplished for free by “jailbreaking” an iPhone to run unauthorized apps, and a little command line work. The phone has the capability, any restriction is an artificial one. The carrier likely wouldn’t be able to (and more likely wouldn’t try to) differentiate tethered traffic from regular phone traffic, though it might look suspicious when you start downloading torrents of the latest Battlestar Galactica episodes. This technique is not for the faint of heart, or those who want to maintain their warranties.

The ball is in Apple’s court to explain themselves. Were the app reviewers not paying attention to the implications of NetShare? Is it Apple’s duty to enforce cell carrier policy? Will any app get pulled if a cell carrier objects? Can the Canadian App Store get the app back, at least? Is it reasonable to pull an app without notice or reason given?

*Test of using the term “notebook” as opposed to “laptop”, after a very warm lap session this weekend that proved these machines are no longer suitable for extended use on one’s lap, but may be suitable as a non-surgical birth control method.