Do 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Mi-Fi Wi-Fi Hotspot
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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.