Consumer group The Free Press this week issued a formal complaint with the FCC about Verizon’s anti-tethering activities. 

Tethering offers a means of enabling multiple Internet devices to share a mobile data connection. Verizon offers tethering as a $30-a-month service and, according to the Free Press, does its best to prevent customers from using less costly alternatives.

“When Verizon purchased the spectrum licenses associated with its LTE network, it agreed that it would not ‘deny, limit or restrict’ the ability of its users to access the applications and devices of their choosing,” notes The Free Press in its filing. “Verizon’s actions in disabling access to . . . tethering applications limit and restrict the ability of users to access those applications.”

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The Free Press said the filing was triggered by recent news reports indicating that Google has disabled Verizon customers’ access to third-party tethering applications in Google’s Android Market application store—apparently at the request of Verizon. Those applications sell for no more than $31, with some costing less than $15, The Free Press notes.

“Removing applications from the Android Market severely restricts their use,” argues The Free Press. The Free Press notes, for example, that if a Verizon customer attempts to download one of the tethering applications from the Android Market, he receives a messaging stating “This item is not available on your carrier.” The Free Press argues that this language “clearly suggests that . . . the application is not compatible with his carrier’s service.”

If a Verizon customer does succeed in finding the tethering application from another source, the installation process triggers a message on the user’s phone saying “Your phone and personal data may be more vulnerable to applications from unknown sources. You agree that you are solely responsible for any damage to your phone or loss of data that may result from using these applications.”

Verizon currently offers free tethering on an introductory basis with its LTE service but that introductory period is scheduled to end June 15, The Free Press notes.

The Free Press also takes issue with language in Verizon’s cellular service terms and conditions which says “customers who do not have dedicated mobile broadband devices [i.e. a MiFi or USB modem] cannot tether other devices to laptops or personal computers for use as wireless modems unless they subscribe to” Verizon’s tethering option.

The Free Press urges the FCC to “act quickly to investigate Verizon’s indiscriminate and arbitrary blocking of tethering applications.” Not to do so, the organization argues, would negate the commission’s network openness rules.

In its filing, The Free Press notes that T-Mobile and AT&T also have attempted to block customers’ use of tethering—so why the group is singling out Verizon is not clear. Perhaps certain details of the way Verizon apparently has attempted to block the use of tethering appeared to be more vulnerable to a legal challenge.

Based on the information provided, it would certainly appear that The Free Press has a strong argument. This is an issue that should be of particularly great concern to rural users, who often have no data connectivity available to them other than 3G wireless service. I’m sure those users will not appreciate being told they can’t use that connection to support multiple devices in the way that landline services based on DSL, cable modem or FTTH can.

The tethering issue takes on particularly great importance considering that the FCC is hoping to count 4G LTE as a “broadband” service for purposes of its proposed broadband Universal Service program. If the commission really hopes to proceed on that basis, it would appear that it would have no choice but to mandate more open tethering support—at least for any carrier that hopes to receive funding through that program.

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