T-Mobile’s ‘Family Mode’ Will Kill Your Child’s Internet Buzz

T-Mobile wants to limit your data, but not in the old-fashioned way. Today the company announced “Family Mode,” a hardware/software combination that can lock down both your family’s devices and your home network to cut off the internet when you think kids shouldn’t be using it.

I say “kids,” but I really mean any of us. I know I’m an internet addict, and I’m pretty much unable to stop looking at Twitter until I leave my phone on my desk and go to bed. Family Mode combines wireless usage controls and a new version of an existing home network device, the Circle, to extend restrictions to any device on a home network.

The basic service costs $10/month and controls kids’ iPhones, iPads, and Android devices (but not Amazon Fire devices), letting parents track usage, check location, and filter content, no matter what network they’re connected to. It’s an upgrade to T-Mobile Family Allowances, a network-based feature that lets you block and manage calls and texts on your kids’ phones, but doesn’t have any effect on data and app usage.

The rebranded Circle hardware costs $20 up front on top of the basic monthly fee, and it’s been badged the FamilyMode Home Base. Its role is to track, filter, and if necessary cut off access on anything connected to your home router, device by device. You can set different time and content limits for a smart TV, an Xbox and a tablet, for instance. Because it’s entirely router-based, there’s no app to install on the client devices.

In our full review of Circle, we explain that it uses a strategy called Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) spoofing to intercept data before it gets to the internet, and that it has a pretty flexible set of levels and filters for content. Its major downside is that it filters the internet device by device—if kids and adults share devices, you can’t filter a kid’s account but not an adult’s. Circle software is also available on Netgear’s Orbi and Nighthawk routers.

Now, before you complain that this solution can be worked around, of course it can. Just like child-tracking devices are for kids who want to be tracked, Family Mode is for families who basically want to obey rules, but need a nudge. There’s nothing to stop someone from smuggling in a hotspot and evading the Circle; it’s not a Family Faraday Cage. Similarly, if the app works like Circle’s Go app, it can be disabled on a phone. (You will then have to notice that, and impose consequences.)

Family Mode doesn’t necessarily give you anything that isn’t already out there; we have a roundup of parental control apps, and the Circle also already exists. The pricing here is just different. A standalone Circle costs $99, plus $4.99/month for a Circle Go subscription (down from the $9.99/month in our review.) On Netgear routers, the Circle software plus Circle Go costs $9.98/month. Circle doesn’t control phone calls and texts, though—only internet-based data. The advantage here seems to be combining call/text and internet filtering and reporting, and putting it all on one bill.

Family Mode and the Home Base will be available via T-Mobile on June 29.

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