I reviewed Motorola’s Atrix smartphone in this week’s Tech Files column. What intrigued me about the Atrix are its accessories: one optional dock allows the device to turn into a quasi-laptop; another allows it to turn into a pseudo desktop PC or even an Internet-connected set-top box.
As I wrote in the review, I liked the Atrix and thought the idea of a dockable smartphone had a lot of potential. But I found the docks themselves expensive, underwhelming and their potential largely unrealized.
Since I wrote my column, a reader alerted me to another reason to dislike the docks.
One of the advantages of the docks is that with them, you can use a full version of Mozilla’s Firefox browser to surf the Web and pull up Web apps in much the same way you would on a standard PC. What I didn’t realize was that in order to use the full Firefox browser on AT&T’s data network, AT&T requires users to pay its extra $20 a month tethering fee. (H/T here to blog site These Are the Droids.)
Tethering fees have typically been assessed to users who want to be able to access the Internet on their laptops or other devices using the data connection that’s built into their smartphones. They do so by connecting — or tethering — the two devices using a USB cable or Bluetooth.
More recently, tethering fees have been assessed to users who want to do something similar by turning their smartphones into portable WiFi hotspots. This typically allows them to connect up to 5 other devices to the Internet by linking them by WiFi to a smartphone.
I’m not a big fan of tethering fees in the first place. It seems to me that wireless users ought to be charged for how much bandwidth they consume — not how they consume it. It arguably places no more stress on a network for me to connect to it with a laptop, a desktop or a phone. What matters to the network — i.e., what stresses the network — ultimately, is how much bandwidth I’m consuming.
If a laptop sucks in more data at one time than a smartphone, network operators can, if need be, protect their networks by limiting the flow. If using a laptop causes a wireless customer to consume more bandwidth overall and thereby tax the network, operators can charge them for that. But charging them for the “privilege” of being able to use a laptop on the network is unfair.
However, what AT&T is doing with the Atrix is even more offensive. When you attach the Atrix to one of its two docks, you’re not doing so to help another computing device connect to the Internet. Neither of the two docks is a separate device from the Atrix. You can’t get on to the Internet just using the laptop dock for example; it may look like a laptop, but it has no CPU and no operating system and no software within it.
The full Firefox browser that AT&T wants to charge you for using runs on the Atrix itself. It’s pre-installed on it! The laptop dock and the multimedia dock do nothing without the Atrix. They’re just accessories; they’re extensions to the main device.
By definition then, there’s no tethering going on at all when you use the laptop or the multimedia docks. Instead, AT&T is effectively double charging Atrix customers who only want to use the full Firefox browser. Those customers are already paying to access the Internet on that device. The only difference is that they are attempting to access the Internet through a piece of software that runs on the device itself.
By way of contrast, Apple iPhone owners can connect their device to a TV using a cable or wirelessly through an Apple TV set-top box. Through that connection, they can watch movies from iTunes, Netflix and other places or listen to streamed Internet music. If they want to, they can get all of that data via a data connection to AT&T’s services — and AT&T won’t charge them an extra penny for the privilege (unless, of course, they exceed the company’s data caps). This despite the fact that what they’re doing is little different from what Atrix users would be doing.
AT&T spokesman John Britton confirmed the extra charge for using the Atrix’s Firefox browser on the company’s network. He noted that Atrix owners can use the browser for free if they are connected to a WiFi network rather than to the company’s data network.
When asked to explain why the charge was fair and why the situation with the Atrix is any different than connecting an iPhone to a TV, Britton said: “It’s a more enhanced experience that basically duplicates the full laptop experience. As you know, the Android enabled browser does not offer the full Internet experience as does Firefox. That’s the difference.”
I don’t buy it — and you shouldn’t either. In effect, AT&T is discriminating against a particular application. If this doesn’t flout the idea of net neutrality (at least the intent, if not the actual rules that the Federal Communications Commission recently handed down), I don’t know what does.