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:
- Most providers require a 2 year contract for your mobile hotspot. This could be a deal breaker if you do not anticipate using it that often.
- Third party providers such as Virgin Mobile and Clearwire rent their cellular access from one of the 4 major cellular providers, so you’re getting even less bandwidth if you choose them.
- Streaming content could use up your allotted data fast. For example, streaming a movie from Netflix could easily burn through a gigabit or more of data within hour. “We offer 3 video quality settings to help you manage your data usage: Good (up to 0.3GB/hour), Better (up to 0.7GB/hour) and Best (up to 2.3 GB/hour when streaming HD content – generally about 1.0 GB/Hour).”
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?