Hacking an Android phone for $8 monthly broadband and TV

It wasn't easy, but I used a Wi-Fi router app for a smartphone to get access to live television and home broadband access, eliminating a monthly cable bill.

Depending on where you are, you can significantly cut your bills for basic cable, home broadband, and mobile voice and data with T-Mobile and Aereo live TV over the internet. In San Antonio, Texas, I hacked an Android smartphone into a Wi-Fi router and then subscribed to Aereo instead of subscribing with one of the cable television and internet companies. I saved a bundle of money.

Right now, T-Mobile offers unlimited mobile data. In some locations, 4G performance can be as good as, or even better than, wired broadband. In order to confirm if this was possible, I checked the T-Mobile coverage map using the location’s zip code. The T-Mobile’s map indicated that 4G coverage at the San Antonio location was excellent. Then I tested broadband speed with a really amazing app called Open Signal. The result: 9.4 Mbps down and 2.4 Mbps up. Open Signal also indicated older HSPA service. HPSA is an extension of the 3G standards into the 4G realm. Some might argue that it’s not really 4G, and there's no doubt the performance of 4G LTE would be better, but this was a good-to-go signal. According to Akamai’s Q3 2013 State of the Internet Report (PDF), Open Signal’s reported speeds are approximately the same as the U.S. national average.

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Aereo broadcasts over-the-air (OTA) television on broadband internet with high-definition quality. Depending on location, OTA television can work well with a simple HD antenna, but unless the antenna location is perfect, which it never is in condos and apartments, it will be an unpleasant television viewing experience. Aereo solves this problem, delivering crystal-clear HD television. It’s not available everywhere and the big networks, led by FOX, have sued to shut them down because Aereo has avoided paying the networks a subscription fee by using a proprietary antenna array and a unique business model in which they lease a tiny antenna to each subscriber.

How difficult installing a Wi-Fi router is really depends on the smartphone at hand. In this case, a different choice of smartphone would have made this exercise much easier. I used an HTC First that was originally sold to run on AT&T’s mobile network. An unlocked Nexus 5, or other easily unlocked smartphone, could have eliminated most of the work described below, but for those that have a smartphone and want to save the $350 for a nice new Nexus 5, or just like to hack Android phones, here are the details.

To start, I replaced the AT&T micro sim with one from the T-Mobile store, which was available for free. Android devices will automatically configure the voice network but won’t always configure the data network. This was the case with the HTC First. To access the data network, the access point name (APN) needed reconfiguration. Locating the Android APN settings varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, and from Android version to Android version. It can be found somewhere by clicking the label under Wireless and Networks. A step-by-step guide for configuring the HTC First’s APN wasn’t available, but a guide for the popular HTC One was available. I used the same instructions for the HTC First to connect to T-Mobile’s data network.

Had I used a different smartphone, I could have saved a lot of time. For $7.95, I could have installed the PDAnet app on stock Android to convert the smartphone into a Wi-Fi router and share its internet connection with PCs and other smartphones. But because AT&T locked the HTC First’s tethering and Wi-Fi to its network, PDAnet would not work. So I installed Fabio Grasso’s Wi-Fi Tether Router app for $1.95. The Wi-Fi Tether Router requires rooted Android. It would have been easier to have installed and rooted with a CyanogenMod ROM because it has a clean Windows-based installer. Comparatively, rooting the stock Android 4.1 on the HTC First was much more complicated than replacing it with a ROM.

Rooting stock Android 4.1 on the HTC First requires the installation of the Android SDK. The SDK is a big download and because it includes the Eclipse IDE and all the libraries needed for Android app development, it is overkill for the task of simply rooting a device.

After that, I downloaded EZToolkit Advanced (HTC First) 2.0, and used it with a variety of other tools to give the HTC First root access. Novices and those who aren’t keen on following strict directions should not choose this alternative because it could result in bricking the smartphone.

Once rooted, the Wi-Fi Tether Router installed cleanly and the HTC First was converted into a Wi-Fi Router that worked with other smartphones and PCs. The response to browsing and email was crisp.

With an internet connection, I was able to connect to Aereo. Aereo supports AppleTV and Roku or a PC with most browsers. In this case, a PC with the Chrome browser was connected with an HDMI cable to a large flat-panel television. An AppleTV or Roku would be more convenient because both have remotes that eliminate the old-fashioned task of getting up to change the channel on the PC. The Aereo subscription provides ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS and other stations.

The total cost - $78 per month; $70 per month for T-Mobile smartphone unlimited plan, plus $8 per month for an Aereo subscription. Almost every smartphone user is already spending $70 per month, so home broadband and television costs only $8 more per month. This can be compared to $140 per month; $60 per month for a smartphone voice and data plan with only 2.5GB of light data usage, and $80 per month for basic broadband and television.

For just $8 per month, you can get all-you-can-eat internet and live television from the major networks. Special a la carte programming, such as HBO and ESPN available only from cable and satellite providers, can’t be added to this kind of Aereo plan, but for another $8 more per month you can add Netflix to increase your programming options.

For those with thousands of television channels, this approach may not provide enough choice. But for the consumer who regularly looks at his or her cable guide and wonders why hundreds of shows are listed but only a handful are interesting, eat up and save your money.

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