Hotspots: Friend or Foe?

Mobile Wireless Hotspots

The the most common wi-fi hotspots are the free ones that you see in retail areas that have a partnership with one of the major cellular companies (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) If you have a mobile device from one of those carriers, you can use the free wi-fi connection. However, if you want to control the hotspot or take it with you, you will need your own mobile solution.

 A mobile hotspot is a separate device that behaves like a cellular phone with a data plan but no telephone capabilities. You use its signal to connect to the internet with your computer or tablet. It’s also possible to turn your smartphone into hotspot that broadcasts wifi for other devices to use.

Ok techie… How does it work?

A mobile wireless hotspot works exactly the same way any modern smartphone does. It must be subscribed to a company that allows for data activity across their cellular network. Most major cellular carriers limit the number of simultaneous connections to 5 or 10 devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc) per hotspot. The distance you can be away from the mobile hotspot varies, but tends to be 30 feet.

Hold on a sec… Didn’t you say I could do this with my smartphone? Why invest in redundant technology?

Excellent point. In some cases, you might want to have a mobile hotspot from a different cellular provider. Let’s say you are an iPhone user on AT&T, but you frequently travel to areas that have less-than-ideal connectivity. Relying on your phone’s data plan might leave you high and dry. With a mobile hotspot from another cellular provider that has better coverage in those areas, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to get online no matter where you travel. There are also some cases where using your phone as a hotspot might not be an option. For example, I’ve been with AT&T since the 3G iPhone release in 2008, so I have unlimited data but no option to create a hotspot. If I upgrade my plan to allow tethering, I lose my unlimited data — a trade-off I am not wiling to make.

Whether you choose to use your existing phone or a separate device as a hotspot, you’ll need to be aware of the provider’s rules for tethering. There is generally a monthly charge, limits on the number of devices that can use the hotspot signal, and a limited amount of data you are allowed per month. This helpful table lists popular phones and carriers and their tethering cost per month.

Are mobile hotspots Friend or Foe?

I personally think that mobile hotspots are a “Friend” for those who travel within the US on a regular basis. If you need a connection while on the road, a mobile hotspot makes a great supplement to what you may or may not have available otherwise.

Just keep in mind some of the potential downsides:

Let us know if you have a hotspot solution that you’d recommend to others. Also, if you have one, do you use it just for occasional travel or as a day-to-day supplement to your other connectivity options?

Published by

John McWalter

John McWalter is Operations Engineer in the Library Tech Commons

2 thoughts on “Hotspots: Friend or Foe?”

  1. I’ve used the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service for about 9 months and have found it to be really useful. I’m using the MiFi 2200 device that allows up to 5 devices to connect to it. One thing I like about it is that there is no annual contract – I can sign up for monthly service. A $20/month plans gets me 1 GB of data, which has been more than sufficient for my needs (mostly email and some web surfing). At that price point, it’s a deal when I have to travel since most hotels charge between $15-25/day for wifi access.

  2. Million dollar idea for someone: Make a map of all the WiFi hotspots that ACTUALLY have service (think Google Maps) and then sell it to the big companies, who can use it to help the rest of us. 🙂

    *We’re moving to a remote location, and think it would sure be helpful*

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