People wishing to avoid O2′s extra charge for using their iPhone to connect a computer to the net can use free software – but O2 warns it will cut them off.
The discovery could cause problems for O2, which has the monopoly on iPhone sales in the UK, and which has reported high interest in the new 3GS, which went on sale this morning.
In the UK, for instance, O2′s tethering addition – a “bolt-on” which allows iPhone owners to turn their handsets into a wireless modem that will get a computer online – costs an extra £14.68 per month for up to 3GB of downloaded data, in addition to the existing monthly contract for the iPhone itself, which allows “unlimited” data downloads. That brought protests from iPhone owners in the UK who had expected their unlimited contracts would be extended to include the use of the phone as a dongle, which Apple has enabled in its iPhone 3.0 software, released on Wednesday evening.
However visitors to benm.at – an iPhone and iPod touch enthusiasts’ website – can download a profile that instantly activates the tethering system free of charge.
One journalist known to the Guardian downloaded and installed the profile to an iPhone 3G handset and confirmed that it takes just seconds to download, installs instantly and works flawlessly. Connected to a PC, it allowed the use of the iPhone as a “tethered modem”, or dongle, with typical mobile broadband connection speeds, of up to around 1.4Mbits per second.
User feedback posted on the BenM website suggests that the hack works with on iPhones registered with networks worldwide, including AT&T in the US – a carrier that doesn’t currently offer a paid tethering option to its iPhone customers.
In the UK, the iPhone is available only on O2, and the network was unequivocal in its response to questions about the workaround.
An O2 spokesperson told Guardian Technology: “Any use of [the tethering] feature without the purchase of the bolt-on is specifically prohibited under our terms of service. Under those terms we reserve the right to charge customers making modem use of their iPhone or disconnect them.”
However, when pressed as to whether or not the company would actually charge or disconnect offending users, the spokesperson said that decisions would be made on a “case-by-case basis”. The spokesperson would not specify precisely how O2 would detect and distinguish tethered and non-tethered data use.
Ben Miller, the owner of the BenM website, insists that his work isn’t a hack that alters the functionality of the iPhone, but merely uses publicly available information and tools to enable its “tethering” system. He said that the profile he created adds the carrier’s access point name (APN) and password to the iPhone.
He used Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility to create an XML file which is then “pushed” to the handsets of iPhone users who download the profile from the BenM website.
The iPhone Configuration Utility is available as a free download from the Apple website, while carrier APNs and passwords are widely published online (the relevant details for O2′s APN are on O2′s site). Anyone with sufficient technical knowledge could therefore create a tethering profile and push it to their iPhone.
Miller also questions O2′s claim that it would be able to detect abusers: “Most data looks the same, though peer-to-peer and voice over IP applications like Skype could be detectable because they go through different gateways.”
Apple was asked to comment on this ability to unlock the iPhone tethering facility for free. It has not responded at the time of publication.
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