Mobile hotspots offer a convenient way to share internet access with multiple devices. But how do they work, and do you need to pay for them? Here’s everything you need to know about a mobile hotspot.
Your Portable Internet Connection
A mobile hotspot, also known as a portable hotspot or a personal hotspot, is a wireless access point typically created by a dedicated piece of hardware or software on your smartphone. Whereas your home network’s connection comes from your ISP, a hotspot shares internet access with nearby devices using its own cellular data connection.
Mobile hotspots generally take a 3G, 4G, or 5G connection and convert it into a Wi-Fi signal for other devices. They are beneficial when you are traveling or spending time outdoors and don’t have access to regular Wi-Fi. It can also come in handy for sharing internet access among friends and family members if they don’t have a data connection of their own.
How Can You Use a Mobile Hotspot?
There are two ways you can set up a mobile hotspot. You can either use the personal hotspot feature on your smartphone or buy a dedicated mobile hotspot device.
Your smartphone’s built-in personal hotspot feature is typically the easiest way to get a mobile hotspot up and running. All modern smartphones come with the personal hotspot feature unless you use a carrier-locked smartphone and your carrier has disabled it.
You can check if the feature is available on your iPhone by navigating to Settings. The Personal Hotspot option is listed below the Mobile Data option. On Android, you’ll find the Wi-Fi hotspot option under “Hotspot & tethering” in the “Network & Internet” settings.
When you enable the personal hotspot feature on your phone, it creates an ad-hoc wireless network that is then used to share the phone’s data connection with other devices. The process of sharing this data connection is also called tethering.
Apart from your smartphone, you can also use a mobile hotspot device, sometimes referred to as a MiFi (short for My Wi-Fi) device, to set up a wireless access point. These hotspot devices are small, battery-powered, and use a SIM card to connect to a cellular network.
Both carriers and device manufacturers sell the MiFi devices. However, the carrier versions are typically locked and come bundled with a SIM card and a plan, whereas you can get SIM-free and unlocked versions from device manufacturers.
How to Enable Portable Hotspot on Your Smartphone
It’s fairly straightforward to activate the mobile hotspot feature on your smartphone. If you have an iPhone and want to use it as a hotspot for another Apple device with the same iCloud account, you don’t have to do anything on your phone. Simply look for your iPhone under Personal Hotspot in wireless networks on your other Apple device and connect to it. However, if you want to offer access to non-Apple devices or Apple devices with a different iCloud account, head to Settings > Personal Hotspot and enable “Allow Others to Join.”
On Android, the location of the mobile hotspot option may vary on different models. Still, you will typically find it by heading to Settings > Network & internet > Hotspot & tethering > Wi-Fi hotspot.
Once you have enabled the mobile hotspot, you can change the Wi-Fi password. It’s always good to have a strong password to keep your hotspot secure.
Do You Need to Pay For Using a Mobile Hotspot?
While cellular service plans for smartphones typically include mobile hotspot access, some carriers may charge extra or need an add-on plan for the personal hotspots. Therefore, it’s best to check with your carrier if your phone’s plan allows mobile hotspot access. Some cell plans even have a separate data quota for mobile hotspots.
On the other hand, you will need to pay for both the device and its data plan if you are going the MiFi device route. Depending on the feature set, the price of a MiFi device can go from $20-30 to a few hundred dollars or even more. In addition, you may even have to get a new line for your MiFi device.
Mobile Hotspot Limitations
While mobile hotspots are very useful, they have certain limitations. For example, a mobile hotspot has a range of around 30-60 feet. If you are out of the device’s range, you won’t be able to connect to the wireless network and use the internet.
As the mobile hotspots tap into the cellular data connection to offer wireless internet, you can only use them where cellular service is available. Therefore, a mobile hotspot won’t do you any good if you are at a remote location without a cellular signal.
The quality of the cellular coverage and network congestion can also impact the data speed offered by a mobile hotspot. So if you are in a limited cellular service area, you will very likely get poor internet speeds, and if you share it among multiple people, things will only worsen.
In addition, running a mobile hotspot is a battery-intensive task. If you are using your smartphone as a hotspot, you can expect a massive drop in its battery backup. And since you require your phone for voice calls and other things, you’ll need to connect a wall adapter or risk discharging it completely. Mi-Fi devices are relatively better in terms of battery backup. They can last longer and don’t eat into your phone’s battery.
Mobile Hotspot vs. Wi-Fi Hotspot
While a mobile hotspot is also a type of Wi-Fi hotspot, we usually refer to public wireless access points when we talk about Wi-Fi hotspots. These are created by wireless routers and found in places such as coffee shops, shopping malls, hotels, airports, and railway stations. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are often free, and you only need a device with wireless connectivity to utilize them.
The one significant difference between mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi hotspots is security. As a mobile hotspot is typically private, created by you or someone you know, and accessible only to people you know, it is relatively secure. On the other hand, Wi-Fi hotspots are public and accessible to everyone. This can allow a malicious person to eavesdrop on your internet traffic and potentially steal login credentials and other private information. That said, you can protect yourself while using a Wi-Fi hotspot by using a good VPN.
What to Look For in a MiFi Device
While Wi-Fi tethering on your smartphone is a quick and easy way to set up a mobile hotspot, some people may prefer a dedicated mobile hotspot device. So when you are picking up a mobile hotspot, it’s a good idea to consider where you will use it or what you expect from it.
A MiFi device with 5G support makes most sense if you want faster internet. You will also want support for dual-band Wi-Fi as the 5GHz band allows faster data transfer speeds than the 2.4Ghz band. Netgear’s Nighhawk M5 is an excellent mobile hotspot device with support for 5G and dual-band Wi-Fi.
Although carriers are phasing out 3G in the United States, 3G networks are still widespread in many developing countries. So if you are traveling to a country where 3G networks are common, ensure your mobile hotspot device supports them.
People who are likely to remain away from a plug point will want a mobile hotspot device with longer battery life. Some MiFi devices also support fast charging technologies like Quick Charge, which can come in handy.
Additionally, MiFi devices with a touch panel allow easier access to device settings, and the display can show your connection details.
There is also a case to be made for SIM-free MiFi devices, particularly if you are traveling internationally. Rather than dealing with expensive data charges on roaming, you can simply switch to a local SIM with cheaper data rates. Unfortunately, this is not possible on carrier-locked MiFi devices. However, some carriers may allow device unlocking after 60-days of purchase. The Netgear Unite Explore is a great example of a SIM-free MiFi device that can connect up to 15 devices.
SIM-free MiFi Device
Netgear Unite Explore AC815S
The Netgear Unite Explore AC815S is perfect for a frequent international traveler. It’s unlocked and supports GSM networks.