How AT&T Tracks Tethering Usage

How AT&T Tracks Tethering Usage

A few months ago, we reported that AT&T is starting to crack down on iPhone tethering usage. Jailbroken users are able to tether without subscribing to an extra plan. Some new information has emerged regarding how AT&T determines who’s tethering.

In a post by Android Police a few weeks ago, it was mentioned that a separate APN (access point name) is used for a separate tethering plan:

Jailbroken iPhones typically use the same tethering technique as a standard iPhone, the one that’s already present in iOS. This method exposes tethering activity quite readily, because the iPhone, when in tethering mode, sends traffic through an alternate APN (AT&T access point/router) for the express purpose of identifying the traffic as tethered data. This makes it extremely easy for AT&T to identify whether or not an iOS device is utilizing tethering, and just how much of their data is consumed via tethering.

Some tethering applications for iOS make use of alternative methods and route tethered traffic through the phone’s normal data APN, but by and large, most jailbreakers stick with the stock application because it’s easy to use and doesn’t require any complicated setup. In fact, many iPhone users jailbreak for the sole purpose of avoiding AT&T’s tethering fees (for why, see next section). These are the people AT&T’s is going after.

If you’re jailbroken and would like to continue to tether, then it’s recommended to use PdaNet (see the screenshot above). It’s personally my favorite way of tethering, and it’s been around for quite some time (since September of 2008).

The latest version of PdaNet (version 5.01) has a new toggle, called “Hide Usage”. This, supposedly, uses the default data APN for your iPhone (instead of the tethering-specific APN). We’re not exactly sure what the different levels do. We’ve reached out to June Fabrics for some information regarding this, and will update this post once we receive it.

Now that this information has spread all around the web, I’m sure AT&T (and other carriers, for that matter) are looking for new ways to block people from tethering without paying for it (come on, why pay extra for a tethering plan when we’re already paying for data?).

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  • quietstorms

    “Some tethering applications for iOS make use of alternative methods and route tethered traffic through the phone’s normal data APN, but by and large, most jailbreakers stick with the stock application because it’s easy to use and doesn’t require any complicated setup.”

    Where does Netshare & Handy Light fit in this for those who managed to get it while on the App Store? Is it as easily tracked?

  • 20-something hipster

    Hmmm…..gee, why pay for tethering when you’re already paying for data, am I understanding the question correctly? Why pay for cable television when ads are sold on the program? Why buy fuel when you’ve already bought the car?

  • besweeet

    I’m assuming that they’re using your regular data plan, as I don’t think that they would have access to any extra APNs.

  • Chris

    his point is that AT&T wants him to pay for the way he uses his data. He has a data-plan for surfing with his iPhone and they want him to pay extra if he uses that data volume to tethering.
    A better metaphor is: They want him to pay more for the fuel if he uses it in a motorbike instead of a car

  • Gabrielle

    It doesn’t work. I bought PdaNet, used the “Hide Function”, tethered for 5 minutes and received a text from AT&T two days after doing it.

  • awperk

    I agree that it’s nonsense to pay more for data you are already paying for. They have data caps for a reason (which i also hate) and if you tether and go above your regular smartphone plan’s cap, they should charge you extra. It’s absurd that they are essentially charging you twice for the same data when don’t go over your cap.

  • besweeet

    Level I or level II?

  • JBG_Design

    AT&T has no special way of detecting tethering, they are just going after users who are downloading more than 5 gigs a month. using the latest PdaNet app to tether will not make a difference. i tether my iPhone all the time, but i make sure not to go over 5 gigs and have never received a text from AT&T about tethering, but one of my friends has never tethered or jailbroken his iPhone and he has received texts about tethering. he uses on average 8 gigs a month without tethering. he told AT&T, but they will not listen. they gave him another month to see if things changed, but enrolled him in the limited data plan just because he used a lot of data again. basically, no one with an iPhone on AT&T has an unlimited data plan anymore. it may say so on your statement and you are paying the $30 a month for it, but if you go over 5 gigs, they will automatically enroll you in the limited 2 gig plan.

  • JBG_Design

    are you serious? it’s more like back in the day when cable companies made you pay for each TV you had cable running to, even though no cable box was required.

  • Mike Rathjen

    If you signed a contract to pay more to use fuel in a motorbike instead of a car, then yes, you should should pay more.

    If you don’t think you should obey the contract you agreed to, then why should AT&T obey their side of the contract they agreed to?

  • besweeet

    Hmm… I average at about 15GB of 3G data used per month, and I haven’t received anything. I’ve had the unlimited data plan for over 2 years, and I always go more than 8GB of 3G data per month. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Saif Imran

    Motorbike takes more fuel than a car?

  • Spidey329

    @
    Gabrielle Ok, but had you been using other tethering apps prior to that?

  • JBG_Design

    i’ve used over 60 gigs in a month before, and many months over 30 gigs and have never received a text from AT&T about tethering, and i use MiWi. I’ve had the unlimited plan since the original iPhone first came out in 2007.

  • sky

    I received 2 text messages from ATT about tethering. I thought nothing of it until today I had another message telling me they are arbitrarily changing my plan.  I called and spoke with an ATT rep.  She told me that just jail-breaking my phone counts as tethering.   ??????  I said thats not the same thing as tethering.  She said that if someone jailbreaks their iphone when they connect to itunes on their computer ATT sees this as tethering.  My blood was boiling.  I said I want a print out sent to me of my so called tethering activity. I run a program called User Agent Faker which allows you to see a normal website format on your iphone instead of the mobile lite versions. She said they don’t have records of my data activity, only the total amount of data.  I asked for a supervisor but hung up accidentally.  I’ll call back tomorrow.

    I don’t buy the jailbreak explanation she gave. I think ATT is just trying to increase their revenue stream.

About the author

Brian SweetBrian Sweet is a young 20-year old student who loves technology (PCs, Macs, iPhones) and auto racing. Brian also writes for JailbreakZone, and is the host of the This Week in iPhone podcast (not affiliated with TWiT). Follow Brian on Twitter (the quickest way to get in touch), or visit his website.

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