In today’s internet-savvy world, it’s hard to think of going a whole day or even an hour without wireless connection. We connect when we’re at home, in the office, at school, in restaurants, and in transit. In most of these cases, our devices are provided with internet access using DSL, broadband, or a cable connection. However, in the case of our cell phones, a cellular service carrier administers the connection and equips the phone with a set amount of data. With an ever increasing data rate speed (soon to be 5G), improved coverage across the country, and a variety of payments for data available, why then don’t we replace home Wi-Fi internet services with the services provided with a cell phone? Can a mobile hotspot replace your home Wi-Fi? To answer these questions, let’s start from the beginning.
What is Wi-Fi?
Like home phones in the past, computers too had actual wires and cables that connected them to the internet. As technology advanced, though, the wires became increasingly small or limited to the point of nonexistence. So without those wires, a new system was developed in order to enable our computers, phones, and tablets to connect to the world wide web: Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is a standard of using wireless networking to set up communication over the net. A wireless router facilitates this communication. It is a device that is plugged into the telephone socket of a home, office, or business, and uses radio waves (instead of cables) to transmit and receive messages, aka internet data, to any device equipped with wireless access. Essentially, the router acts as an access point of connectivity to the internet. The availability of the access, however, is defined to a certain area or range known as a hotspot.
What is a mobile hotspot?
In essence, a mobile hotspot is a portable, usually battery-operated, wireless router. It allows you to transmit and receive data from the internet without actually having to plug it into a telephone socket. Instead, it taps into cellular networks and uses a cellular signal to connect to the internet. There are three main types of mobile hotspots: cellular phones, USB mobile data sticks, and stand-alone devices. All three have the capabilities that allow devices to connect to the internet provided you have a cellular provider.
Hotspot service providers
Due to the fact that mobile hotspots require a cellular signal, it is necessary to go through a wireless internet service provider. Hotspots in the United States are available from all four major nationwide carriers: Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint; as well as from several smaller virtual operators.
Where to buy a hotspot
If you own a smartphone it’s safe to say that you already have a mobile hotspot connection. Simply go to your Settings, and search for “Wireless Hotspot” or “Personal Hotspot.” Here you can turn on your personal mobile hotspot, which uses your cellular data to tether or connect other devices to the internet.
If you’re in the market for a USB mobile data stick or a stand-alone device, three venues stand out in terms of purchasing value. First, you can go directly through your wireless service provider. Each carrier usually has a variety of devices to choose from and can assist in your selection based off of your data plan. The second option is through Best Buy. You can buy your device online or in-stores, and with their selection tool online you can compare price, key specs, and current discount offers. The final venue is Amazon.com. With this option you can read reviews of the products from people who have already purchased and used them. Furthermore, in addition to supplying devices from the major nationwide carriers, they also serve as a selling platform for the smaller virtual carriers.
Bandwidth capacity/ Upload and download speeds
So you’ve decided on a device. Now it’s time to determine how much bandwidth you have or how much bandwidth that you are going to need. Bandwidth is classified as the volume of information that can be handled and transmitted over a given unit of time. The larger the bandwidth, the more data you’ll be able to transmit and receive, therefore giving you a faster connection. Obviously in contrast, less bandwidth means less data and a slower connection. It’s safe to say then, the more bandwidth the merrier!- depending on your budget of course.
So let’s begin with the lowest and slowest, 2G. Second generation, or 2G, of mobile cellular data was not built for smartphones but for the limited functionality of making phone calls, basic text messaging, and viewing small amounts of data. The bandwidth measures between 0.1-0.3Mbit/s (average download speed: 114kbit/s; average upload speed: 20kbit/s) and is therefore NOT recommended when deciding on the capacity of your mobile hotspot.
3G is a much better option and is usually sufficient for most users. Bandwidths range from 7.2-52Mbit/s (average download speed: 8Mbit/s; average upload speed: 2Mbit/s) and allow for a better transmission speed of data. With 3G you can comfortably browse the web, use GPS, listen to music, and watch videos all online.
To take advantage of the best bandwidth available to date, a 4G cellular connection is necessary. Bandwidth speeds are far superior to that of 2G and 3G, 100Mbit/s- 1Gbit/s (average download speed: 15Mbit/s; average upload speed: 5Mbit/s). In addition to the basics, on a 4G network you will experience higher- resolution video and audio, faster connection speeds, and a larger volume of data that can be transmitted. But please note the breadth of the bandwidth scale! Not all 4Gs are created equal.
The capacity of the bandwidth as well as upload and download speeds are in conjunction with signal strength, latency (delays incurred in the processing of data over the network), and your service provider. Although each generation- 2G, 3G, and 4G have standards set for speed, each provider employes their own technology and consequently Mbit/s will differ.
How many devices can be on a hotspot?
If you are going to use your smartphone as a hotspot then the number of devices you can connect to is dependent upon the device, manufacturer, and cellular network you have. In most cases if you have a 3G network you can connect with up to 5 devices while with a 4G network up to 10.
However, if you are using a USB data stick or a stand-alone mobile hotspot device you can connect an infinite number of devices to your hotspot, in theory. Sure, you connect 8 computers, 5 smartphones, and 2 tablets to your hotspot’s single access point, however, the issue comes down to the bandwidth of your network. Are you working with 2G, 3G, or 4G?
Think of your bandwidth as the plumbing of your kitchen sink. When there is just one or two liquids poured down the drain, they can pass through the pipe freely and quickly. On the other hand, if you pour 15 liquids of different consistency all at once down the drain, it becomes clogged, slow-moving, and backed up. This is exactly what occurs with your mobile hotspot. The transferring and receiving of data is only as large as the pipe in your kitchen sink, your bandwidth. The higher the number of devices trying to connect and use your hotspot, the slower and less successful your hotspot will function. Therefore, it is best to restrict the amount of computer, phones, and tablets that connect to a single hotspot to 5 devices.
So how much is running a mobile hotspot going to cost you?
Well first off, will you be tethering with your phone, or using a USB stick or stand-alone mobile router device? Next, let’s determine what type of work you’re going to be doing. Are you checking and replying to emails, updating your social media, streaming videos, creating new graphic designs, video or conference calling? The tasks you plan to do on a daily basis will determine how much data you will need and consequently allowed by your provider per month. Finally, are you looking to sign a new one or two year contract specifically for hotspot mobility, would you prefer a pay as you go method (month-to-month), is it possible to add a small fee to your already existing plan for hotspot capabilities, or does your plan already come with a hotspot data allotment that will be sufficient for your monthly use?
Yes, so many questions, and unfortunately, just as many answers. Prices vary greatly based on the above factors as well as which provider you will be dealing with. In general, if you are going to use your smartphone as a hotspot then check how much data allowance you are allowed. If it’s a substantial amount then no need to add extra data, or you can purchase an additional 1GB for around $15. If you already have a cellular plan and choose to add a stand-alone device to that plan, you’re looking at spending between $30-$115 per month extra for mobile hotspot capability, with data usages scaling from 1GB to 30GB to unlimited data (only offered with Verizon). Lastly, if you have no cellular plan and would like to use a cellular network for the sole purpose of a mobile hotspot, then prices range between $15-$120 for 1GB-30GB of data per month.
So can a hotspot be used for home internet?
Technically, yes! Let’s look back at bandwidth capacity. A home cable Wi-Fi network is capable of delivering acceptable service with download and upload speeds ranging from 4-12Mbit/s. That’s to say it’s somewhere in between 3G and 4G. But say you have 4G with your cellular service and are looking for faster speeds, than a mobile hotspot is the way to go. 4G speed capabilities sometimes surpass those of home broadband, and with a mobile hotspot you eliminate the need to pay two bills and condense them down into one. Further still, if you’re on the move, mobile hotspots are portable and allow you to connect anywhere there is coverage.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine if you’re looking to switch over completely. Mobile hotspots tend to have much lower data limits, with stricter download and upload operations. It’s advisable to check first how much data you use on your home network. If it’s more than 30GB, then stick with your broadband. Additionally, prices can be higher than similar home cable packages. It’s usually more expensive to get the same amount of data from a cellular provider than from home broadband. Finally, a mobile hotspot is less reliable than your home network.
So generally speaking, a mobile hotspot can replace your home internet but only when absolutely necessary. If you must have the internet right now, just need it for some light projects, or need a connection on-the-go, then try it out for a few months and test the waters. However, if you’re looking for something more permanent, plan on having several devices connected, and download or upload large amounts of data, then stick with the more reliable, (usually) less expensive home broadband.