Emergency Internet: Smartphone tethering

In this column I recently recounted the problems I had getting DSL installed in my new house. But there was one part of the experience that actually proved instructive.

In the period between moving in and getting back online I relied on a Motorola Droid smartphone on the Verizon network to keep track of e-mail and social media. As I have noted, the Droid is a great device, one of the best cell phones I've ever tested and Verizon's service has really impressed me.

Anyway, at one point I needed to file this column and hadn't counted on the DSL installation delay. I had a sneaking suspicion, however, that someone somewhere must have created "tethering" software for Android.

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What is "tethering", you may ask. Tethering software allows you to connect a smartphone to a PC via USB or Bluetooth and route IP packets to and from the phone's data services, effectively putting your PC online.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to do the research so I did it the ugly way: I mounted the Droid's SD Card via USB, copied the file to the Droid's storage, renamed it from .doc to .jpg (the Gmail client only supports attaching image files for some odd reason), then unmounted the card, created a message, attached the fake image file, added a note about renaming the file to .doc, and hit "send". Worked like a charm; clugey, I admit, but it worked.

So, now I had that out of the way I decided to see what tethering software might be available. After a little browsing in the Android Market (via the Droid) I discovered the most excellent PdaNet published by the oddly named June Fabrics Technology.

PdaNet is available for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, PalmOS, Treo and Centro, and the Android version supports both USB tethering and Bluetooth Dial-Up Networking.

June Fabrics' explanation: "PdaNet does NOT require root access or hacking your phone's firmware in order to work. It is just a regular Android application that works on all Android phones as-is. Tethering is fast, secure and USB mode will also charge your phone at the same time. Your phone can either connect to 3G data, WiFi, or even through VPN, and PdaNet will share the connection with your computer."

I downloaded the Android software, which took a few seconds (got to love the Verizon service) and, once it was installed and I started PdaNet's USB Tether service, it asked if I wanted to download the PC software. I saved the PC software on the Droid's SD storage then mounted that on the PC using USB, copied the installer to the PC storage, and ran it. I then unmounted the Droid storage, ran the PC application, enabled the USB service in the Droid application, and voila! My PC was online.

June claims that the PdaNet software can operate at up to 20Mbps with zero latency. Of course, its performance will, in reality, be limited by the performance of whatever connectivity the phone is using to access the Internet. I found the performance to be excellent and services like Gmail ran pretty much as usual. A nice feature is that the PC client also includes an SMS interface so while PdaNet is in use you can text from your PC.

As an emergency connection, PdaNet is perfect. It can be used for free with the limitation that after 14 days it blocks secure Web sites. The price of the unlimited version is $23.95 and well worth the investment. I give PdaNet for Android a rating of 5 out of 5.

Gibbs is now untethered in Ventura, Calif. Link to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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