3 Foolproof Ways to Create Your Own Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot for Tethering in North America

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hotspot wi-fiDo you want to give multiple wireless gadgets on-the-go internet access? Are you sick of getting ripped off by wireless hotspot tethering? There’s a variety of technologies that can help you – the two most prominent being at the intersection between MVNO networks and portable hotspot Wi-Fi devices. By combining these two technologies you can cheaply run around town with a bag full of Internet-ready devices, as well as share your portable Internet field with friends. You can even operate a phone from a Wi-Fi (or Mi-Fi) field using software which functionally converts raw data into voice minutes and SMS.

It’s not simply a new way of doing things – it’s a lifestyle change requiring a mixture of software and hardware. However, in the end, rolling your own Wi-Fi network is an absolute steal. You can even make money. The trick is in finding the right software, MVNO plans and gadgets.

Smartphone Tethering: Create a Wi-Fi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

The most common, but least user-friendly, method of creating your very own portable Internet field is by configuring what’s known as wireless “tethering”. A tether allows you to transform a mobile phone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, although with tremendous caveats (unless you own a Nexus phone). In the past, telecom operators frowned on this practice, often billing users for using their phone without purchasing the carrier’s bloated and outrageous tethering devices. While the government ruled that forcing customers to purchase separate tethering plans was illegal, carriers have still managed to find all sorts of nasty ways to discourage consumers from using their mobile devices to tether.

Advantages:

  • The biggest advantage of a single-device tether is its simplicity. Rather than carrying around multiple devices, you only need your phone and whatever else you want connected.
  • Offers the lowest total price, since it uses your current data plan. In particular, I advise using T-Mobile’s $30 a month prepaid plan (at the bottom of the page), which comes with 100 minutes of talk and unlimited data.

Disadvantages:

  • Carriers hate you when you use a single-device tether. Some will even try to illegally block you from using their service.
  • Requires a smartphone.
  • When tethered, your phone will use both Wi-Fi and 3G simultaneously, which are the two most battery intensive components of your phone. This will result in large battery drain and generally necessitates plugging your smartphone into wall socket.
  • Potential difficulty making phone calls.
  • Many phones, including Android and iOS devices, will require rooting or jailbreaking combined with an application that will enable tethering. Without a Nexus smartphone, tethering can be very complicated.

Fortunately, with a Nexus phone, you can natively create a hotspot Wi-Fi hub. The operating system then disguises the network traffic to appear as originating from the cell phone, rather than from other devices. Thus, to the carrier at least, it appears you use data only from your phone.

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Mi-Fi Wi-Fi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

A Mi-Fi device creates a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Think of it as a portable router for a cellular data feed. Many cellular carriers actually offer locked-down, contract-only Mi-Fi devices. These devices generally offer good value, although both in the price of the device and in the monthly fees. Fortunately, some companies sell these devices unlocked (or untethered, if you like puns) from any GSM carrier. I advise using an unlimited plan from an MVNO, in combination with an unlocked Mi-Fi device. Straight Talk is one of the first carriers that come to mind, although many others exist.

For those of you who love signing long-term contracts, Verizon offers 5GB plans for 4G Mi-Fi devices – if one chooses to ignore the contract, the plan offers some of the best value in terms of network reliability and overall speed. On the other hand, you can get a contract-free Virgin Mobile portable hotspot for $119.99 and $55 a month for the same data cap.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlocked devices combine quite well with prepaid plans from MVNOs, particularly pay-as-you-go plans from carriers, such as Ptel. The monthly upkeep of a pay-go plan can run as little as $5 per month. Before purchasing a plan, however, make sure you know the basics.

Advantages:

  • Greatly reduces the price of getting multiple devices online. Rather than paying for a separate 3G component in your tablet, you can instead buy a single plan and leech bandwidth from it.
  • This method can provide the easiest setup of a Mi-Fi hotspot, provided you don’t try to use VOIP and Google Voice.

Disadvantages:

  • Data networks do not do a particularly good job of maintaining high quality connection while in transit. Thus, call quality over VOIP will suffer from a moving automobile or train.
  • A separate Mi-Fi device requires its own battery, which necessitates charging and management.
  • $50 a month for 5GB of data may offer too little an allotment for heavy users.
  • The use of a Mi-Fi hotspot can sometimes be very complex, depending on how you configure your device. For example, using Google Voice combined with TalkaTone or Skype may include other fees and a time-consuming setup process. However, keep in mind that if you follow Chris’s directions, TalkaTone can allow you to receive free phone calls.

PCMCIA or USB Data Card WiFi Hotspot

hotspot wi-fi

Some carriers offer PCMCIA or USB cards which provide mobile Internet access for your laptop. These devices allow your laptop to “reverse-tether”, which allows the creation of a portable hotspot from a PC.

Advantages:

  • Using the PCMCIA method bypasses reliance on a smartphone – therefore, you can easily take calls without disturbing any part of your portable hotspot.
  • A laptop can hold a charge better than a smartphone, thanks to its much larger battery.
  • Laptops handle the burden of managing a hotspot with greater efficiency than a smartphone.

Disadvantages:

  • Compatibility issues mean not all wireless adapters are compatible with creating a hotspot from a laptop.
  • A lengthy setup process involving the command line. If you don’t like computers, then this option isn’t for you.

Conclusion

You don’t have to sign a two-year contract to get your own mobile hotspot Wi-Fi service. Three methods exist for getting all your mobile devices online: root your phone and install tethering software, purchase a Mi-Fi device and data plan or use your laptop with a mobile data device to reverse-tether.

All methods come with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I prefer using a Nexus smartphone to tether, but that’s because its particular advantages suit my needs perfectly. If you do elect to go with a portable hotspot, make sure you select a suitable plan.

Does anyone else regularly use a portable hotspot? What works best for you? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Special thanks to Richard Paddock for the tip.

Images: LaptopPhone and Fireworks via MorgueFile.com; Wi-Fi Hotspot via Shutterstock.com; device images via their respective websites.

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Comments (22)
  • Gwenuveve Danara

    ….Or you could just get a carrier-unlocked phone… tethering is a core feature of android and ios, and phones that don’t have carrier-installed software still have the feature easily accessible… I’ve been using the core feature for a couple of years now, and I’ve yet to be socked by a fee for it… but then I don’t deal with user-unfriendly companies…

    Just sayin’..

  • Aaron Christopher Webb

    Which nexus phone does this with ease?

  • Linnea McCrary

    Hi, I have a MVO for tmobile and I have a G2. Can anyone tell me how to do this? PM me?

  • Lily

    Hi, I’m new to all this… have an old nexus s 4g currently on sprint unlimited data plan (currently locked to sprint) and a new iPad (6 months old-new, not air) version 8.1.3 (if that means something) that is on Verizon’s plan. I’d originally gotten the Verizon because I thought it’d have better reception where I needed it, but at this point am wondering what my options are as far as making my nexus a viable hotspot…… can you point me in the right direction?
    Am also considering switching phone to T-Mobile plan but wld have to get a new phone or unlock(?) this one? I am wondering if anyone knows whether sprint/T-Mobile are currently successfully cracking down on all this.
    Thank you for your time.

    • Kannon Y

      Verizon was legally required (because it purchased a block of wireless spectrum with special clauses in the contract) to allow tethering. It violated the contract up until 2012, when the FCC forced them to allow tethering apps. While they do allow tethering on limited plans, they still illegally try to block access on unlimited plans. I don’t know if much has changed since I last checked, but here’s an old article on the subject:

      http://lifehacker.com/5933152/the-right-to-tether-what-the-verizonfcc-settlement-means-to-you

      T-Mobile, and other carriers, are not bound by the same rules as Verizon, so I can’t tell you whether or not they permit it. My guess is that they will charge an additional fee if you try to tether on their networks.

  • ADIEL KERR

    how di i creat my hotspot on my tablet

    • Kannon Y

      It depends on the model of tablet. If you have an LTE equipped tablet (you wouldn’t need a hotspot on a WiFi tablet), there’s an option in some versions of Android that let you configure a hotspot from the Settings menu.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.