Thanks to an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, Verizon has agreed to stop blocking its Android users from downloading third-party tethering apps. Verizon has also agreed to pay the FCC $1.25 million in fines.
Verizon currently charges its users $20 per month -- on top of data plan prices -- for the ability to "tether," or use their phone as a wireless hotspot for other devices, such as tablets and laptops. According to a complaint filed by Free Press in June 2011, Verizon asked Google to block third-party tethering apps, which allow users to tether without paying Verizon's $20 fee.
This request -- that Google block third-party tethering apps on its Google Play store -- ignored the FCC net neutrality conditions that Verizon agreed to when it bid on, and won, a large chunk of mobile broadband spectrum in 700MHz auctions in 2008, Free Press argued. The FCC upheld this argument on Tuesday, noting that the "open device and application obligations were core conditions when Verizon purchased the C-block spectrum."
Verizon denied that it ever blocked third-party tethering apps in a statement released Tuesday.
"Verizon Wireless has always allowed its customers to use the lawful applications of their choice on its networks, and it did not block its customers from using third-party tethering applications," the company said.
As part of the agreement, Verizon will be notifying app stores that it no longer wants them to block third-party tethering apps.
So what does this mean for you?
If you're a Verizon customer with an Android handset and a tiered data plan, it means you're officially allowed to download a third-party tethering app such as PdaNet (non-rooted phones, free and $25 paid version), EasyTether (non-rooted phones, $9.99),
If you're a Verizon customer with an Android handset and a grandfathered-in unlimited data plan, Verizon is still technically allowed to charge you the $20 monthly tethering fee. This is because the fee is supposed to cover the fact that users who tether use more data (because they're browsing the Web on laptops and tablets) than users who don't. However, Verizon previously required the fee for all users, even those on tiered data plans who couldn't (without paying extra) use more than their allotted data. That said, Verizon has no real way of knowing whether you're using a third-party tethering app, unlimited data or not.
If you're a Verizon customer with an iPhone, I assume you can use third-party tethering apps -- if you can find one. Apple removes all third-party tethering apps from the app store already, so if you want to tether for free you'll have to jailbreak your handset and download an app such as PdaNet ($14.99).
Finally, if you're an AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile customer, it doesn't mean anything. According to the FCC, the consent decree is because of Verizon's 2008 purchase of the mobile broadband spectrum. Since AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile did not make similar purchases, they're still allowed to charge users an extra fee for tethering.