Use Your Cell Phone as a Modem for Your PC

Picture this: You're on a commuter train with no access to a Wi-Fi hotspot, landline, or ethernet connection, and you have to get online now. Hey, is that a cell phone in your pocket? Then you may be just a couple of clicks away from the Internet.

Many of today's handsets pull double-duty as a phone and as a modem for connecting notebooks and PCs to the Internet. With a few noteworthy exceptions (can you say "Bluetooth"?), setup is quick and easy. All you need is a phone with modem circuitry enabled, a wireless data-access plan that supports using the phone as a modem, and software for your computer.

AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon sell monthly data plans designed for people who want to use their phone as a modem (a practice sometimes referred to as "tethering"). If you use your phone in this manner on a standard data plan--not the carrier's phone-as-modem service--you may incur additional fees (for example, charges per kilobyte of data transferred). Though T-Mobile doesn't offer phone-as-modem service per se, you can use its Dash, its Wing, or any of a few other handsets as modems. You're on your own for tech support and drivers, but abundant tips are available at Howard Forums and's Mobile Office Technology guide.

The carrier typically provides free drivers as downloads from its Web site, or on a CD. If the service's tethering application doesn't work with your cell-phone model, try a third-party program. June Fabrics' PDANet runs on Palm and Windows Mobile phones, while MobiShark's Shark Modem supports specific BlackBerry models. If you plan to use your cell as a modem only occasionally and are already paying your carrier for a monthly data plan, one of these apps may help you avoid extra fees for using your handset as a modem.

Most cell phones connect to a computer via USB cable, and many PDA phones come with such a cable. If yours doesn't, you will have to spend about $20 for one, or rely on a wireless Bluetooth connection. I used USB cables to connect phones from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon to a laptop running Windows Vista. See "Connecting via Bluetooth" for details on linking by means of Bluetooth. If your cell phone supports high-speed 3G data service, and you're in an area where it's available, you'll get download rates of 220 to 700 kilobits per second, comparable to slowish DSL. T-Mobile hasn't yet deployed 3G technology; its EDGE service is only slightly faster than dial-up. If 3G is not an option for your phone, the connection slows to about 50 to 80 kbps, about the rate of a dial-up connection. Of course, in a pinch, dial-up speed is better than no connection at all.

Any calls you receive while using your phone as a mo­dem will go straight to voice-mail. And if you place a call, your modem connection will end automatically.

Using AT&T's Phone-as-Modem Service

AT&T charges $60 a month ($40 for supporting use of a standard cell as a modem, and $20 for providing unlimited Media Net access). For BlackBerry, Palm, and Windows Mobile phones, AT&T's phone-as-modem packages (which include Media Net access) range from $60 to $80 a month more, depending on whether you have a voice plan with AT&T; the cost is lower if you do.

To use AT&T's service, first download the company's free Communication Manager software. Install the application on your phone, and connect the phone to your PC via USB. Some handsets require that you enable the modem feature before linking to the PC. For example, to activate the modem on a Samsung BlackJack, go to Start, Settings, Connections, USB, scroll to the Modem option, and click Done three times. (Visit AT&T's online Support center for tips on how to set up a specific handset.) In the Search field enter phone as modemyour phone model, and press Enter. After the AT&T software identifies your device, launch the Communication Manager app and click Connect in the setup box, as shown in the image below.

Once AT&T's Communication Manager software has recognized your cell phone, you can begin using the handset to perform a variety of standard Web browsing tasks.
Once AT&T's Communication Manager software has recognized your cell phone, you can begin using the handset to perform a variety of standard Web browsing tasks.

Connecting Over the Sprint Network

Sprint's Unlimited Phone as Modem plan costs $50 a month; and its Flexible Phone as Modem plan, $40 a month. The flex option lets you transfer up to 40MB of data monthly. If you exceed that limit, you pay $0.001 for each additional kilobyte to a maximum fee of $70. You must sign a two-year service contract to use a Sprint phone as a modem.

To get started on this service, first download the free Sprint PCS Connection Manager software and install it on your PC--but don't open the program yet. Instead, connect your phone to your computer, and then launch the Connection Manager app. Click the Go button, and you're done.

T-Mobile's Phone-as-Modem Plan

Internet access via the T-Mobile service costs $40 a month, excluding voice calls. If you use a BlackBerry with the service, monthly plans range from $40 to $90. T-Mobile doesn't officially support using its phones as a modem, but some of the company's handsets--including the Dash and the Wing--work as modems, and using them in this way doesn't violate your service agreement. I used the Wing in my tests. Here's how to set it up:

1. Plug the phone into the PC's USB port.

2. If Windows automatically finds a driver for the handset, skip to step 3. If it doesn't find a driver, download ActiveSync and install the app on your computer. Step through the setup wizard, and then restart your machine.

3. On the Windows Mobile device, go to Start, Programs, Accessories.

4. Click the Internet Sharing icon.

5. In the PC Connection dropdown, select USB.

6. In the Network Connection drop-down menu, select T-Mobile WModem Link.

7. Click Connect at the lower-left side of the screen.

Modemize Your Verizon Wireless Phone

If you have a PDA phone, Verizon's BroadbandAccess Connect costs $30 a month; the service costs $60 a month if you use a standard cell phone.

First, install the VZAccess Manager software on your phone; it should already be on the handset, but if it isn't, you can download the app. Most standard cell phones also need the Mobile Office Kit ($40), which includes a USB cable and PC software.

Next, install and open VZAccess Manager on your computer. Step through the wizard, then click Next, Detect WWAN device only (as shown in the screen below), and finally click Next twice more. Select Data Cable (For tethered handsets and PDAs/Advanced Devices), and Next again.

Choose the 'Detect WWAN device only...' option in Verizon's VZAccess Manager software to link your PC with your cell phone in order to gain Internet access through your phone.
Choose the 'Detect WWAN device only...' option in Verizon's VZAccess Manager software to link your PC with your cell phone in order to gain Internet access through your phone.

Now physically connect your cell phone to your PC, using a USB cable. When the app identifies your phone (showing your handset's manufacturer and model name in a pop-up window), click Yes and then Next. Your cell phone number will appear on the next screen. If it's correct, click Next and Finish to exit the setup routine.

VZAccess Manager launches automatically. Highlight NationalAccess - Broadband Access, and click Connect. In the following screen, click Continue. Then browse away.

Connecting via Bluetooth

You can do without the cables if you go the Bluetooth route, though setup is a hassle. To proceed, you'll need a Bluetooth phone and a Bluetooth-enabled laptop or desktop PC. I used a notebook running Windows Vista and a very common phone--the Razr V3--over AT&T's network. (Some of the settings identified below will vary depending on the particular handset and carrier.)

Here are the steps:

1. On your cell phone, go to Menu, Settings, Connections, Bluetooth.

2. Select Setup, highlight Power, click Change, and set it to On.

3. On your Vista PC, click Start (Start, Run in XP), type bthprops.cpl, and press Enter.

4. Under the Devices tab, click Add.

5. Check My device is set up and ready to be found, and click Next.

6. Return to your cell phone, and highlight Find Me.

7. On the PC, highlight your phone's name and click Next.

8. Select Choose a passkey for me, and click Next.

9. Enter the passkey on the handset.

10. After Windows exchanges passkeys and pairs with your Bluetooth phone, click Finish.

11. On the PC, right-click Computer (My Computer in XP), and choose Manage.

12. Select Device Manager, click the + sign next to Modems, right-click your phone modem, and select Properties.

13. Under the Advanced tab, type AT+CGDCONT=1,"IP","isp.cingular" if you're a new AT&T customer, or AT+CGDCONT=1,"IP","proxy" if you're an existing user. Click OK.

14. In Vista, click Start, Connect to, and select Set up a connection or network.

15. Choose set up a dial-up connection, and click Next.

16. Select your phone modem, and in the 'Dial-up phone number' field, type *99#. (If you get an error when you try to connect, enter *99***1# instead.)

17. In the Username field, type ISP@CINGULARGPRS.COM (using all-capital letters).

18. In the Password field, type CINGULAR1 (using all-capital letters).

19. Select Remember this password, and in the 'Connection name' field, type GPRS. Click Connect and then Close.

Modem-Software Love When Your Carrier Leaves You Cold

If your carrier's phone-as-modem service does not support your Palm or Windows Mobile phone, don't despair. (For example, AT&T's Communication Manager software doesn't support phones that run the Palm OS.) June Fabrics Technology's PDANet software may be able to help. The program, which is free to try and costs $34 to own, lets you use your Palm or Windows Mobile phone as a modem on any Windows machine via USB, Bluetooth, or an infrared connection. (If you use a Mac, PDANet will run only through a Bluetooth connection.) I used USB to tether my Vista-based laptop to a Samsung BlackJack with AT&T's service.

Download and install the PDANet program on your PC. If it isn't already on your system, download and install ActiveSync. Step through the setup wizard, clicking Next at each screen. Now connect your phone via USB. The PDANet driver will install on your phone automatically. Click OK. In your PC's system tray, click the PDANet icon and select Connect.

Support for Older BlackBerries

Some carrier-supplied apps don't support the use of older BlackBerry models, such as the 8700g, as a modem for PCs. That's where MobiShark's Shark Modem software comes in. The program costs $45, but a free trial is available. According to MobiShark, the software works on all 7000 and 8000 series BlackBerrys.

Before you can use it, you must download and install the BlackBerry Desktop Software (registration is required) on your PC. Then, after loading the Shark Modem program on your phone, open the BlackBerry Desktop app on your PC, double-click the Application Loader icon, and click Next.

Next, connect your BlackBerry to your computer's USB port. The BlackBerry software on the PC will automatically assign the connection (for example, 'USB-PIN: 30191B7D') and display it in the Connection field. Click Next, select the SharkModem checkbox to add the program, click Next, and then click Finish. After the app loads, click Close.

Select the SharkModem icon on the BlackBerry. In the pop-up window, click Yes. In the 'Connect to Internet via' field, choose Direct TCP connect. Under 'Connect to PC via', select USB.

Back on the PC, extract the zipped Shark Modem folder. Next, open the Proxy folder, double-click setup.exe, and click Next. In the 'Choose Install Location' screen, the program will automatically designate its location on your computer (typically in Program Files). Click Next, then Install, and finally Finish.

Now open Internet Explorer, and click Tools, Internet Options, Connections, LAN settings. Under 'Proxy server', enter localhost in the Address field, and 3128 in the Port field. Click OK twice.

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