You Don't Own What You Thought You Bought: Verizon Breaks Phones; Turns Off Feature

from the how-nice-of-them dept

Yet another reminder that, in this day and age, you often don’t actually own the products that you’ve purchased. The latest to make this point is Verizon, who has begun remotely crippling Android smartphones, turning off a feature that let people use the phones as mobile hotspots. The reason? Well, to make you pay more to re-enable the feature you used to have:

Verizon this week began pushing smartphone updates that cripple some devices’ innate ability to be used as a mobile hotspot — for free. Specifically, Verizon pushed an update to the HTC Thunderbolt that blocked the devices embedded hotspot functionality, making the device less valuable and less useful to consumers. Why? Verizon wants to ensure that users have to pay an additional $20 a month mobile hotspot fee.

The company has also received some help from Google, getting the Android maker to remove any tethering apps from the Google marketplace, thereby making it (somewhat) more difficult to workaround this feature-kill. As Karl Bode notes in the post linked above, this seems the opposite of “open”, which both Verizon and Google have been pushing when it comes to Android.

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Companies: google, verizon

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Comments on “You Don't Own What You Thought You Bought: Verizon Breaks Phones; Turns Off Feature”

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Kasey Krehbiel (profile) says:

They did this to the Droid X long ago

When the Droid X got its Gingerbread update a few months ago, it included this same functionality killer (Why wasn’t it a story back then?!) Fortunately, Google is shaking Verizon’s hand with one hand while holding a dagger in the other. The newest beta version of their Wireless Tether app defeats Verizon’s blocks.

You can find it here:

out_of_the_blue says:

Mike, you've again shown "free" to be a mere TRICK.

Besides that one simply can’t trust corporations to do anything except transfer numbers from your account to theirs. With all the weight of evidence going one way, how can anyone believe in “capitalism”? — What you want, and HAD in the not too distant past, is a REGULATED MARKET.

John Doe says:

The tethering apps have stealth mode

I have PDANet for my Motorola Droid X and it has a stealth mode to hide the fact that it is tethering. I am not entirely sure how stealthy it is, but I hope it is stealthy enough.

As for removing the tethering apps from the market, you can still get them directly from the developers websites by turning on side loading of apps.

I wish to hell that someone would startup a wireless company with reasonable fees. Why is it, we have the most expensive broadband and wireless plans of any developed nation and many less developed nations?

Anonymous Coward says:

This wasn’t really researched well was it? From day one of offering free 4G mobile tethering promo on the Thunderbolt, Verizon made it clear that it was an incentive, and a temporary one. In fact, they were supposed to cut it off mid-June, but waited until the unlimited data plans died off and killed it on July 7.

I’m assuming the idea was to get users used to the feature and speed so that when the trial ended people would shell out for it. Oh, and 3G tethering is $20 with an extra 2GB, whereas 4G tethering is $30 but I’m not sure if it is for the same extra 2GB or “unlimited”.

So, no, Verizon didn’t remove or change any features, they flipped the switch from free to paid.

The Incoherent One (profile) says:


I don’t believe that this is very likely. It has been widely known (I thought) that the mobile hotspot feature of many android phones was an additional fee. Sprint, Verizon, and At&t (I do not know about T-Mobile) that they have a specific app and fee structure built in to enable that app for being a mobile hotspot. Some 3rd party apps have been used as a work around to that and unlocking the hotspot ability. In other cases like the iPhone the function was un-locked by jail breaking the phone.

You can still get a tether program from the Amazon App Store.

Anonymous Coward says:


Absolutely no features were removed or altered. You can still tether with the Thunderbolt. This is like the get Stars and HBO free for three months. It was a Verizon sanctioned promo that ended. The software update simply stopped the free tethering promo. Just like every other Android you can still use third party tethering apps instead of the built in hotspot you have to pay the carrier for.

ComputerAddict (profile) says:


Altering the programming on the hardware to support their business

“Cell companies do this to EVERY phone, Especially Verizon, all the way down to feature phones.. where you have to buy their games, from their store, for their price… This has been standard practice for 15 years.”

“AND go to Google and get them to remove existing apps that would work around their new fence”

They’ve been doing this since Verizon’s second Android phone. (DRIOD 1 had completely unaltered Android OS) So they’ve been doing this for about 2-3 years.

It’s less “flipping a switch” and more “Standard Operating Procedure”

Anonymous Coward says:


Right, pressuring Google to remove tethering apps from the market wasn’t a Verizon thing as much as it was a ALL carriers thing. Of course, you don’t need Android market, just a .apk.

“The latest to make this point is Verizon, who has begun remotely crippling Android smartphones, turning off a feature that let people use the phones as mobile hotspots.”

This is just blatantly false. Like I said, the update stopped the free promo. It was sold and marketed as a promo. One that was supposed to only last 1 month but went almost 3. Thunderbolts can still be used as mobile hotspots, but just like every other carrier, using the built in hotspot feature requires payment.

I typically like a lot of TechDirt’s articles, but this seemed like one of the occasional “rabble” rousings.

The more appropriate PS3 analogy would be having PSN for free then having to pay monthly for PSN.

Christopher (profile) says:


I think it’s either misunderstanding or an act of disingenuous misunderstanding, but no one should be confused about Google’s “openess” with Android. Google makes it free to use/ simple to license, but it doesn’t mean the OS remains unencumbered once implemented on hardware. People are either intentionally confusing this to dirty up Google, or don’t understand how to read. There’s no third choice in 2011 since Android has been around three years now.

People are also forgetting that Verizon is an ILEC, and the most successful and vicious child of the AT&T breakup by far. Not too surprising since it was formed out of AT&T’s old research region (NY/NJ); this is the company that rolled out CallerID, then anonymous calling,, *then* de-anonymizing CallerID. They created an arms race in their own ecosystem! This is the same company that gladly leases phones to its ratepayers. Who really thinks Verizon and VZW aren’t in this *solely* for the money? People, they forgot more about nickel-and-diming than you will ever know.

Hey, when they give back the Spanish-American war tax money, we’ll talk again.


harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Break the Contract!?

probably not. as far back as i can remember both sprint and verizon have been pretty clear that you have to pay more for ‘phone as modem’ access. what they are actually doing is just making sure that people are paying for something that has always carried a charge.

i could see how some may have moved from a dumb phone to an android and are thinking that they are removing services that were already there… but thats not actually what it is.

the real question is why are they charging as much as they are for data in the first place…. fix that and this is even less than a non-issue.

Anonymous Coward says:


RCN (at least in lehigh valley) already requires an extra fee to use more than one PC. You need to pay an extra $5 a month to allow a home network. Otherwise, it’s written in the contract that only one *device* can connect to the internet. in my opinion, it looks like they didn’t realize one can classify the router as an internet device.

out_of_the_blue says:

Mike, you've again shown "free" to be a mere TRICK.

“I’d like to actually see a capitalist system first. Right now we have a crony corporatism, which is not the same thing at all.”

Oh, YES IT IS! If you’re maintaining that “capitalism” is an “unknown ideal”, it’s simply overlooking the fundamentals of /capital/: those who have it make the rules. The “crony” version is just the modern form of a few families owning everything, shutting out the rest.

I’m stuck with the term. But you don’t actually want to see “capitalism” in practice, and better be glad that you haven’t: for it in historical terms, look up what capitalists did opposing unions and the 40-hour week, “trusts”, or further back, under “feudalism”, where those with “capital” owned everything including the serfs.

We live in a /unique/ and vanishing bubble from the Enlightenment in a New World that led to brief freedom from The Rich in the Americas. The inheriting of unlimited /capital/ is same as feudal entitlements, and the system is reverting to that.

CommonSense (profile) says:

Mike, you've again shown "free" to be a mere TRICK.

“With all the weight of evidence going one way, how can anyone believe in “capitalism”?”

That’s an easy one, we’re not dealing with true capitalism here. If we were, Verizon would have been put in check a long while ago, and they likely wouldn’t have so much money with which to abuse their position.

Ninja (profile) says:

Break the Contract!?

I use the freakin feature to get my notebook online when I need. I paid for the freakin data (2Gb) so what does it matter where I use them? If I wanna use the full thing pinging sites using my phone as a usb modem then it’s up to me.

It’s astonishing how most companies have become inhuman to the point they couldn’t care less about screwing their customers, human beings, and using Chinese slaves to make their goods.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike, you've again shown "free" to be a mere TRICK.

That’s an easy one, we’re not dealing with true capitalism here. If we were, Verizon would have been put in check a long while ago, and they likely wouldn’t have so much money with which to abuse their position.

I think you may be confusing capitalism with free markets. They are not the same thing. In fact, capitalists try to lockup and corner markets and eliminate competition in order increase profits. They are for their own freedom in the market, but not anybody else’s.

Anonymous Coward says:

not that i agree

Exactly, Verizon always stated that the free hotspot use was a limited time offer and they actually extended the offer (twice if iirc).

The bigger question should be if Verizon charging for tethering on it’s LTE network violates the open access rules that were placed on the 700Mhz spectrum they purchased. I believe Verizon charging for a feature that is built into the phone os does violate the open access provisions.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


I’ve got T-Mobile and found that their “unlimited” data plan, isn’t. It’s a 7G limit. I still have cyanogen mod on my phone and I still use the wireless tether for my tablet. If they want to get pissed at me and cancel my service, then I can take my $90/m* somewhere else. My contract’s up, I’m paying monthly now.

*that’s $90 a month for unlimited data (7G max), 500 minutes (free nights and weekends I think), and unlimited txts (probably still limited, but I don’t use it enough to find out).

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


You pay for the cell phone, you pay for the device attached to the cell phone, you pay for the power running the wireless devices, you pay for any and all data transferred threw the phone. Why the hell does it matter how the data is transferred? It’s not like Verizon pays more if I download Pioneer One threw the wireless tether as apposed to directly on my phone.

Matt H (profile) says:

not that i agree

I haven’t done a lot of research into this recently, but I did follow the topic during the FCC sale of the C-block bandwidth to Verizon.

My understanding of the rules is that they have to allow any device to access their network as long as it goes through a technical review/certification and doesn’t damage the network.

What is less clear is whether or not Verizon could charge whatever they please for any given network access. So if you buy a VZW LTE-enabled digital camera, they would have to allow it to access the network, but could charge you some dollar amount for doing so. The same for any other device on your plan.

I agree that it’s fair to charge a per-device access fee *if the device connects directly to the network*! However, attaching a secondary device to your phone, hotspot, tablet, or whatever should be covered under the price (extortion) you already pay for that device. Just like you do with your landline ISP.

Can you imagine the outrage if landline ISPs started charging per-device?? I don’t understand why there isn’t similar outrage occurring over *increasing* mobile network charges! The price of bandwidth isn’t going up anywhere near that degree…

So, all that to say…I think the mobile industry needs to get in big trouble.

Irving says:

The proper analogy:

If Ford were to remove your stereo while they have the car in for scheduled maintenance, how many people would just shrug their shoulders and agree that they have that right?

Would the courts agree that they have that right?

Would Ford’s wanting to rent satellite radio to its customers make that right?

Would the only option be to never buy a Ford again?

jesse (profile) says:

Baaaa Baaaa

Sheep. I first noticed that a large population of sheep were walking around America back in the mid 1970’s. I presented a tech paper at a conference, where I detailed how I opened up a computer mainframe, hooked up my measuring equipment and made lengthy performance analysis measurements. The room was aghast, that a young grad student would violate the sanctity of the computer’s innards without having the computer company’s service rep present! I was aghast that they even thought this way. Thank goodness, I noted a sign at a recent “MakerFaire” stating if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Sanity at last. Computers, cellphones, toasters, TV’s are all meant to be tweaked. Go for it!

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


Verizon didn’t just “talk” about ‘Open’. It is a required condition of the 700MHz spectrum license that Verizon has from the FCC. The Thunderbolt is a LTE device that uses that 700MHz spectrum. This is a possible violation of Verizon’s spectrum license terms, and should be taken up with the FCC.

The irony is that Google, partly complicit here, was the instigator of the ‘open’ requirement in the 700MHz auction terms.


Derek Kerton (profile) says:


“Absolutely no features were removed or altered.”

That is incorrect. My Nexus One phone, with the stock Android OS, has tethering built-into the OS.

That is the tethering that was available on the Thuderbolt. Verizon pushed an update to their “altered” version of Android, and it removed this feature. This practice is not unique to Verizon – AT&T iPhones don’t have a tether option visible to the users, but unlocked iPhones have it as part of the iOS. It is fairly standard for handset vendors to modify/limit…er…cripple devices at the behest of carriers. That’s because carriers are their most important volume customer, not you or me.

So, yes, the OS was altered with the VZW “skin”, and in particular, the tether feature was removed.

Previously, there were also tethering apps available in the Android Marketplace. To satisfy carrier partners, Google has made it harder to find those.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


I don’t care about the promo, or whether it was advertised as temporary. That might apply to a SERVICE or RATE PLAN that Verizon offers, but this is different. This is them reaching into what is now YOUR phone, and crippling a feature that was part of the phone OS when you bought it.

The point here is that they are not just ending a promotional service that they offer, but crippling a phone that is yours.

Verizon has a long history of crippling phones. Bluetooth originally scared them, so they had it removed from their phones. Then years ago they allowed it, but removed the DUN capability that -surprise- allowed tethering. Then they were the last carrier to get on board with Wi-Fi, removing it from their phones until they could be certain that it would not cannibalize mobile data revenue. OK, bad enough, but at least in those cases, they sold the devices limited as such. They did not retroactively de-activate bluetooth or WiFi.

Lord Bear says:

It's MY phone

It’s not your private property if you bought it as part of a service plan with the carrier. Read the fine print.

Many people mistakenly believe that as soon as they hand over some money that they then magically acquire full and irrevocable property rights on the software, hardware, etc., that is involved. Ain’t so.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


The apps I put on MY phone are not Verizon’s to offer as a promo, or to remove. Nor are the features that come with the OS. I don’t care that they “offered it as a 3 month promo”. It was never theirs to offer in the first place. It is part of the OS.

I suppose I’ll agree with you that Verizon was not tricky or misleading. That don’t make it right.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

It's MY phone

It IS so.

When your 24 month contract is up, you keep your phone. You don’t turn it in.

When you quit your phone service, you keep the phone, AND you pay the ETF (Early Termination Fee) to compensate for the subsidy the carrier invested in the phone. You don’t turn in the phone. The carrier doesn’t want your used phone back, they want the ETF. You keep your phone.

The phone is yours. What you have is a contractual obligation to retain service for two years.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

USians Letting Themselves Be Screwed Again

As I understand it, these restrictions are only possible because you bought the handset from the network provider at a ?subsidized? price which ties you to a 2-year (or whatever) contract and agreement to whatever terms & conditions they care to impose on the phone.

If you bought the phone from an independent supplier at a regular price, you would get to enjoy all its functions, nobody can remotely reach out and cut them off.

This is something we take for granted in countries with GSM networks; the only bit of hardware the network provider controls is the SIM card, and switching networks is as easy as swapping SIM cards.

Chargone (profile) says:

not that i agree

well, if by ‘worse’ you allow ‘new shiny deal that you only get if you sign up as a new customer’ that’s better than the current contract, or ‘if you sign up now you get this shiny thing free for X time’ when already existing customers don’t get it, there’s a fair bit of that here. but only that sort of thing. (and i seem to recall they’ve got to be a bit careful about exactly how they do That, too.)

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

This is a possible violation of Verizon's spectrum license terms...

Nope. “Open access requirements” means that they must operate that network as a dumb pipe, willing to accept any and all lawful devices and applications that users bring to it. I guess I’m a little confused at how you are interpreting the first link I posted: What do you think it means?

Anyhow, see the first sentence of the second paragraph of this 3 year old article:

also good:

The Ars Technica article, written before the auction, goes on to explain how Verizon lobbied against “open access”, saying that the FCC (Treasury) would get less revenue from an auction if they encumbered the spectrum with that requirement. The FCC responded by saying if they did not get $4.6 billion in bids, they would remove the requirement and re-auction. If you suspect that VZW might have been disingenuous in their lobbying, you won’t be surprised that later, Verizon helped bid the auction up to a record-breaking $19 Billion.

“Open access” was hoped to be like a wireless Carterphone, if you are familiar with that landmark case. By blocking tethering, it seems that Verizon is not on board. Carterphone was about people being able to add independently purchased wired telephones to their home line without paying Bell any more, tethering seems to be pretty similar.

If you fancy slightly more detail, see this:

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

This is a possible violation of Verizon's spectrum license terms...

“First you were saying that Verizon?s licence terms means they must prohibit certain perfectly ?lawful? devices from accessing their network”

Huh? “must prohibit?” Where do you think I said that?

Was it when I started out with: “Verizon didn’t just “talk” about ‘Open’. It is a required condition…” You do know what ‘open’ means, right? It’s kinda the opposite of ‘prohibit’.

I see two possibilities here:
1) you are rather dense, OR
2) you just need to go back and do a little re-read of what I actually wrote.

I’m actually guessing it’s the latter.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

This is a possible violation of Verizon's spectrum license terms...

No, for crying out loud!! You keep reading the opposite of what I write.

And now I see where you misunderstand. You have misinterpreted the use of the word “this” in my original comment. By “this” I meant ‘VZW blocking tethering’, you thought “this” was ‘customers using tethering’. Since my original doesn’t mention tethering, and the subject is Verizon’s license requirements, and the subject of Masnick’s article is “Verizon turns off features”, it is pretty dense to interpret it as you did…and drag me through three follow-up clarifications before you get it – or before I get precisely where you don’t get it.

Verizon’s spectrum license terms stipulate that they MUST allow these lawful devices.

chris says:

This problem wouldn’t exist if people demanded full control over the software on their phone. If they did, there would be no way for Verizon to tell the difference between data coming from the phone, or from a hotspot. I want a new phone but I’m tempted to wait until this whole “software as a service” crap ends and the networks start operating as common carriers.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Why would Google cooperate in this? It seems to go against “don’t be evil” for them to assist another company’s anti-consumer behavior.

And the analogy someone raised with having to pay for PSN is completely flawed. Using PSN consumes Sony resources (server bandwidth, etc.) and marginal additional use of PSN causes marginal costs to Sony, so they are well within their rights to charge a fee for PSN. Using a phone as a hotspot, however, only causes marginal costs to the carrier to the extent that the phone is used to relay Internet traffic over the carrier’s infrastructure, and for that you are already paying the carrier’s probably exorbitant data rates. So they are wanting users to pay them twice for certain kinds of traffic — that’s double-dipping. Actually, it’s a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. Free tethering makes it more likely more people will use the feature, and end up using more bandwidth, for which they can charge more. Adding an up-front cost for tethering makes it likely people won’t tether, and then the only bandwidth use over their network from that customer will be whatever the user does directly on the phone, which means less revenue for the carrier.

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