Carriers Work to Plug Loopholes

Service providers concerned about use of phones as modems.

Wireless carriers are backpedaling on unlimited service offerings as smart customers figure out how to patch their phones to their laptops to take undue advantage of the all-you-can-eat data deals.

To get customers turned on to its cell-phone-based wireless data services, Sprint PCS last fall started offering several new plans for its third-generation network that include unlimited PCS Vision data access at no extra charge for three months and an additional $10 per month after that.

Other options include the ability to customize plans by adding unlimited Vision data service to existing plans for an additional $10 per month. These plans are designed for customers who want to read e-mail and Internet data from their phones.

At the same time, Sprint offers something called PCS Vision for Laptops and PDAs. These plans are designed for wireless access to the Internet using a PC Card modem and cost $100 per month for unlimited data access.

The problem for Sprint, and the loophole for customers, is that its possible to use a Sprint phone as a laptop modem with a simple software download and a cable connection from the phone to the computer. Thus its possible to get access meant to cost $100 per month with a phone plan that costs as little as $30.

Earlier this year, Sprint pulled connection cables from its site. Customers who order service and say they want a laptop connection are told they need to buy a PC Card modem and the PCS Vision for Laptops and PDAs plan.

The small print in Sprints brochures certainly discourages the use of the phone as a modem, specifically noting that the plans are not available for use with other devices via phone-to-computer accessories.

But a Sprint PCS customer service representative said that he was told to discourage but not disallow customers from using connection cables from third parties, and the company actually contradicts itself on its site.

"Funny thing is, Sprint still makes the Connection Manager software freely available as a download from their site," said Joe Cummings, senior Web developer at The Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper in Boston, who bought a connection cable at a local RadioShack store. "I get the impression that Sprint included those little nuggets as a safety valve in case access abuse blew up in their faces."

"I know that the group that handles our Web site is in the process of removing all verbiage from in relation to connectivity kits and software," said Bit Vo, a Sprint PCS spokeswoman in Kansas City, Mo. But as of late last month, the software kit was still available on the site.

At any rate, customers can buy connection kits—both software and cables—online and from retail outlets.

FutureDial Inc. sells a connection kit called SnapDialer that includes both cables and connection software. It works for 3G service connections from Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon Wireless, for its part, is more clear about its unlimited data plans. It offers a flat rate of $99 per month regardless of whether customers are using the phone as a Web browser or as a modem for a laptop. But Verizons terms are a little vague, too.


Road warriors are making maximum use of their cellular data plans with FutureDials SnapDialer:
  • What it is PC software that allows a cell phone to be used as a wireless modem for a laptop
  • What it does Offers Internet connectivity for Web browsing, checking e-mail and so forth
  • What it works on Currently compatible with Sprint and Verizon phones and data services; support planned for AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile offerings
"Nonstop downloads—that is, youre downloading the content of the Library of Congress using [Code Division Multiple Access] 1X and are connected 24-by-7—are not allowed," said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, in Bedminster, N.J. "If we saw that kind of usage, wed contact the customer directly."

Officials at FutureDial, of Sunnyvale, Calif., said they are aware that customers are using their products to get laptop access via the plans Sprint PCS intends for the phone.

"My understanding is that [the carriers would] rather that you didnt do that," said Byron Fujikawa, a customer support manager at FutureDial, which partners with Sprint PCS on other wireless data products. "They havent told us not to sell them."

Cummings said his prime motive for getting the cable was to back up phone book data, but getting the Internet access makes it easier for him to log in and fix Web sites when hes on the road.

Cummings pays $85 per month for 2,000 voice minutes, plus the unlimited data access.

"There is no way Id spend $100 per month plus the cost of a card for a wireless Internet connection," he added. "The cost just isnt worth it to me."