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iPhone OS 3.0 introduces Internet Tethering, Find My iPhone  
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
If you own an iPhone and you've needed to transmit pictures from the field, you've probably lamented the device's inability to share its always-on mobile Internet connection with your laptop. It's a common smartphone feature, but it has only been possible with an iPhone through unpleasant backdoor methods.

Until now. Today's release of iPhone OS 3.0 signals the official embrace by Apple of this capability, and the good news is that it's simple to set up and use.

What follows is a brief look at iPhone OS 3.0's USB/Bluetooth Internet Tethering feature.

What you'll need

iPhone Internet Tethering requires:
  • An iPhone (3G or 3GS only) with OS 3.0 loaded
  • A Mac running OS X 10.5.7 or a PC (as of this writing we haven't tracked down the Windows requirements but have successfully set it up in Windows Vista)
  • iTunes 8.2 (installing iTunes loads the necessary Mac support files for Internet Tethering, and it likely does on Windows too)
  • A mobile carrier that supports Internet Tethering
Important: Not all mobile carriers that carry the iPhone are allowing its Internet Tethering feature to be used at this moment. One of the holdouts is AT&T in the U.S., at least for now. If this is your carrier, or you're on another mobile network in another country that's also in the do-not-tether camp, then you may not be able to take advantage of this new iPhone capability. It either might not work at all, or if you get it work with the help of Google and a workaround or two, then you might face exorbitant data charges, so be warned. Rogers in Canada has given this new iPhone feature its blessing, on 1GB and higher data plans, and so here in Calgary we're Internet Tethering without a problem.

You'll also want to decide whether to tether primarily via USB or Bluetooth. At first glance, Bluetooth looks like the way to go, since no cable to the computer is required. But USB is probably more practical overall, at least for extended sessions and larger file transfers. There are two reason for this:
  • When the iPhone is connected to the computer's USB port it gets charged up, while Internet Tethering over Bluetooth runs the iPhone's battery down

  • In testing with an iPhone 3G on the Rogers 3G (HSDPA) mobile data network, USB Internet Tethering was consistently in the neighbourhood of twice as fast at uploading and downloading as Bluetooth Internet Tethering
Installation and setup tips

To install OS 3.0, connect your iPhone to your computer, launch iTunes and then run Check for Update within your iPhone's section of the program. Apple released OS 3.0 shortly after 11AM MT, though to manage its server load the company will probably stagger the update's rollout over the next several hours.

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Tuning In: Use Check for Update to begin the download and installation of iPhone OS 3.0

Once OS 3.0 is up and running, navigate to the Internet Tethering screen on your iPhone. It's at Settings > General > Network > Internet Tethering. Turn Internet Tethering On.

Update, June 18, 2009: Feedback from nearly three dozen Canadian iPhone users, most or all on the Rogers network, indicates that some have had the same experience as we have: Internet Tethering just works. Others, however, are hitting a wall when attempting to switch on Internet Tethering: a prompt appears asking they contact Rogers and the feature remains disabled.

The probable explanation is that the carrier hasn't finished rolling out Internet Tethering to all iPhone users with appropriate data plans yet. A Rogers FAQ entry on Internet Tethering, which has been updated since yesterday, suggests this may well be the reason. It says that "by June 19th, 2009, Rogers systems will have been updated to make tethering fully operational for all eligible iPhone 3G customers."

Also note the company has previously stated that data plans of less than 1GB will not be permitted to use this OS 3.0 feature, and that a message to contact Rogers will appear for those on lesser data plans. If your plan is 1GB+, then you may want to sit tight until tomorrow to see if Internet Tethering can then be switched on.


Update, June 22, 2009: Several of the Rogers customers that were reporting problems getting Internet Tethering fired up last week have been back in touch to say that the feature is working properly now. This can probably be attributed in part to Rogers completing the enabling of Internet Tethering for all its eligible iPhone users.

Two troubleshooting steps have also been suggested, beyond ensuring that your Rogers plan includes 1GB or more of data per month. First, Forbes Benning found that Internet Tethering was a no-go until he restarted his iPhone. Second, Ted Jacob wasn't able to make a Bluetooth-connected iPhone establish a network link in a slower EDGE data area until he forced his Mac to renew its DHCP settings. To do that, open the Network System Preference, click on the relevant network service (Bluetooth PAN, in this case), click Advanced, select the TCP/IP tab and then click Renew DHCP Lease.

If Bluetooth is disabled on your phone, you'll be prompted to activate it. To keep Bluetooth turned off (and be restricted to USB Internet Tethering) choose USB Only. To have the option of using either USB or Bluetooth, choose Turn on Bluetooth. The screenshots below show the steps involved (the path to the Internet Tethering screen is marked in red). Plus, the last two screenshots are examples of what you'll see when an Internet Tethering session is active.

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Surfing: Configuring iPhone Internet Tethering, plus examples of the blue status bar that appears at the top of the iPhone screen when an Internet Tethering session is active

That's all you need to do to put the iPhone in a state where it's ready to share its access to the Internet. As a reminder, it's the iPhone's mobile/cellular Internet access that's being shared, not its Wi-Fi link, so it doesn't matter whether Wi-Fi is turned on for Internet Tethering to function.

Next, set up your computer's network preferences to start piggybacking on the iPhone's Internet link. If that will include USB Internet Tethering, link up your iPhone to your computer now, if it isn't already. In Mac OS X 10.5.7, the remainder of the configuration process involves adding the iPhone as a network service. With the iPhone connected to a USB port on the computer, you'll be prompted that a new network interface has been detected. This is your cue that the iPhone has been recognized as a pseudo-Ethernet port. Click Network Preferences to proceed.

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Dialog: New network interface detected

At that point, you can rename the iPhone USB pseudo-Ethernet interface to something more meaningful, change the service order and so on. Once that's done, click Apply and USB Internet Tethering is ready for use.

Bluetooth is a little more complicated initially, as you first have to step through the computer-iPhone pairing process. You can start that from within the Bluetooth pane in System Preferences. Once the configuration process is complete, you'll have an additional network interface called Bluetooth PAN (which can be renamed, etc.).

Bluetooth tip: If Bluetooth Internet Tethering isn't working, now or at the start of a future Internet Tethering session, make sure it's connected. You can check that a couple of different ways, including clicking on the Bluetooth icon in the menu bar and seeing if the name of your iPhone is in bold. Bold text means the iPhone-computer Bluetooth link is operational; if your iPhone's name isn't in bold, drag the cursor down to it and across to Connect to Network.

Avoid runaway data charges tip: If you want to minimize the chance of using Internet Tethering unintentionally, but you'd like to leave it turned on within the iPhone so it's ready to go when you need it, you can do what we did: create a separate Location called iPhone, then make only the iPhone's USB pseudo-Ethernet and Bluetooth PAN pseudo-Ethernet network interfaces active within it. The screenshot below shows this.

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iPhone Only: Network pane in System Preferences

In any other Locations (Automatic and others you may have previously created), make the iPhone network interface(s) inactive, so they won't be invoked by accident. This is an instance where the Mac's slick and seamless switching from one network interface to another - from Ethernet to Wi-Fi and so on - can trip you up, since if you're not careful you might find yourself surfing via Internet Tethering without even realizing it, at least until you get your mobile phone bill. A separate, iPhone-only network configuration can't completely prevent this, but it should help.

With your Mac set up this way, switch the Location from whatever it normally is to iPhone whenever it's time for Internet Tethering. You can make the switch in the Location popup menu in the Network pane, or by choosing Location > iPhone from the Apple menu. The latter way is quicker. When you're all done with Internet Tethering, switch the Location setting back to one in which the iPhone's network interface(s) are inactive again. As you do that, you'll see the blue Internet Tethering status bar disappear from the top of the iPhone's screen.

Those of you who are particularly nervous about sky-high data charges can also turn off Internet Tethering on the iPhone itself between sessions.

Performance

An iPhone 3G on the Rogers HSDPA mobile data network generates the following speedtest.net results for USB and Bluetooth Internet Tethering, respectively (indoors, full signal on the phone).

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USB: Download, 272.5KB/s; upload, 31.25KB/s
Bluetooth: Download, 131.25KB/s; upload, 18.75KB/s

While Rogers' HSDPA implementation offers maximum download rates of 7.2Mb/s, the iPhone 3G is limited to 3.6Mb/s (and real world throughput is usually lower than that). The soon-to-be-released iPhone 3GS does support 7.2Mb/s HSDPA, and so should generate higher numbers than shown here.

We also measured the throughput of a series of JPEG uploads to an FTP server using Panic Transmit. USB Internet Tethering upload speeds hovered between about 35KB/s and 43KB/s.

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Phoning It In: Uploading JPEGs to an FTP server with Panic Transmit

Surfing the web feels similar to a basic home DSL connection: fairly fast - much faster than browsing with Safari on the iPhone 3G itself - and entirely usable, but not blazing.

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Incoming: Downloading a large compressed file in Safari

Windows Vista, briefly

On a Windows Vista computer that had iTunes 8.2 installed, getting USB Internet Tethering set up was as simple as connecting the iPhone to one of the computer's USB ports. After a few moments, the iPhone was recognized as an Ethernet port and no further configuration was required to get it working. Bluetooth Internet Tethering is somewhat more involved, because of the pairing process that kicks things off.

But wait, there's more

There are lots of other new features in iPhone OS 3.0, in addition to Internet Tethering. You can read up on those here. There is one other feature worth calling out: Find My iPhone. If you have a MobileMe account (US$99/year in the U.S.) and you misplace your iPhone, you can log into MobileMe and have the service track down where you left it. Darned if it doesn't actually work. In the screenshot below, Find My iPhone is showing my iPhone 3G's correct location, on my hip in front of Little Guy Media world headquarters.

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Good Find: Find My iPhone shows the location of my iPhone 3G

In other tries of Find My iPhone it always got the location right, but not always with the same degree of precision as shown above. As of this writing, Apple's published info on Find My iPhone and Remote Wipe suggests - but doesn't specifically say - that the original iPhone, iPhone 3G and upcoming iPhone 3GS are all supported. Because the original iPhone lacks built-in GPS, however, Find My iPhone may not be able to pinpoint its location as precisely as with newer iPhone models.

If your iPhone is truly lost, you can type a message that will shortly be displayed on it, one that could help the finder get in touch with you. You also have the option of commanding the iPhone to chirp and vibrate persistently at the same time, which not only brings it to the attention of passersby but also makes it easier to track the thing down when you've lost it somewhere in your own home.

Finally, if you think your iPhone is gone for good or has fallen into the wrong hands, you can send a Remote Wipe command to delete all data from it. If the iPhone subsequently turns up, then the data can be resynced back into it using iTunes.

If you're a MobileMe member, you plan to switch on Find My iPhone and you're particularly worried about your iPhone being stolen, you might also turn on the device's passcode protection (Settings > General > Passcode Lock). Otherwise, a thief with a smattering of iPhone knowledge can turn off Find My iPhone with one swipe of his finger in the phone's Settings. The tale of one iPhone thief who didn't know to do that, and was caught red-handed thanks to Find My iPhone, is here.

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