Mobile hotspots provide a convenient way to share Internet access between multiple devices. But how do they work and do you have to pay for them? Here you will find everything you need to know about a mobile hotspot.
Your portable internet connection
A mobile hotspot, also called a portable hotspot or a personal hotspot, is a wireless access point that is usually created by a special piece of hardware or software on your smartphone. While your home network connection comes from your ISP, a hotspot shares Internet access with nearby devices through 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 come in handy when you’re traveling or spending time outdoors and don’t have access to regular Wi-Fi. It can also be useful to share Internet access with friends and relatives if they do not have a data connection themselves.
How do you use a mobile hotspot?
There are two ways to set up a mobile hotspot. You can use the personal hotspot feature on your smartphone or buy a dedicated mobile hotspot device.
Your smartphone’s built-in Personal Hotspot feature is usually the easiest way to get a mobile hotspot up and running. All modern smartphones come with the personal hotspot feature unless you are using a smartphone that is locked by your carrier and your carrier has disabled it.
You can check if the feature is available on your iPhone by going to Settings. The Personal Hotspot option is listed under the Cellular Data option. On Android you will find the wifi hotspot option under ‘Hotspot & tethering’ in the settings of ‘Network & Internet’.
When you turn on 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 known as tethering.
In addition to your smartphone, you can also use a mobile hotspot device, also known as a MiFi device (short for My Wi-Fi), 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 usually locked and come with a SIM card and subscription while you can get SIM free and unlocked versions from device manufacturers.
How to enable portable hotspot on your smartphone
It is quite easy to activate the mobile hotspot function 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 need to do anything on your phone. Simply locate your iPhone under Personal Hotspot in wireless networks on your other Apple device and connect to it. However, if you want to allow access to non-Apple devices or Apple devices with a different iCloud account, go to Settings > Personal Hotspot and enable “Allow others to join”.
On Android, the location of the mobile hotspot option may vary by model. Still, you usually find it by going to Settings > Network & Internet > Hotspot & Tethering > Wi-Fi Hotspot.
After enabling the mobile hotspot, you can change the Wi-Fi password. It’s always good to have a strong password to keep your hotspot safe.[/related]
Do you have to pay to use a mobile hotspot?
While smartphone mobile plans typically include access to mobile hotspots, some carriers may charge additional fees or require an add-on plan for the personal hotspots. That’s why it’s best to check with your carrier whether your phone’s plan allows mobile hotspot access. Some mobile plans even have a separate data quota for mobile hotspots.
On the other hand, you have to pay for both the device and the data plan if you follow the route of the mi-fi device. Depending on the feature set, the price of a MiFi device can range 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 Restrictions
While mobile hotspots are very useful, they have certain limitations. For example, a mobile hotspot has a range of about 30-60 feet. If you are out of range of the device, you will not be able to connect to the wireless network and browse the Internet.
Since the mobile hotspots use the mobile data connection to provide wireless internet, you can only use them where mobile service is available. A mobile hotspot is therefore of no use if you are in a remote location with no mobile signal.
The quality of mobile coverage and network congestion can also affect the data speed a mobile hotspot provides. So if you’re in an area with limited cell service, you’re most likely going to get poor internet speeds, and sharing it with multiple people will only make it worse.
In addition, running a mobile hotspot is a battery-intensive task. If you use your smartphone as a hotspot, you can expect a huge drop in battery backup. And since you’ll need your phone for voice calls and other things, you’ll need to plug in a wall adapter or else you risk running out of battery. Mi-Fi devices are comparatively better at battery backup. They last longer and don’t eat up your phone’s battery.
Mobile Hotspot vs Wi-Fi Hotspot
While a mobile hotspot is also a type of Wi-Fi hotspot, when we talk about Wi-Fi hotspots, we usually refer to public wireless access points. These are made by wireless routers and can be found in places such as coffee shops, malls, hotels, airports and train stations. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are often free and you only need a device with wireless connectivity to use them.
The only significant difference between mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi hotspots is security. Since a mobile hotspot is usually private, created by you or someone you know, and can only be accessed by people you know, it’s relatively safe. On the other hand, Wi-Fi hotspots are public and accessible to everyone. This allows an attacker 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 with 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 pick up a mobile hotspot, it’s a good idea to think about where you’re going to use it or what you expect from it.
A mifi device with 5G support makes the most sense if you want to use the internet faster. You’ll also want dual-band Wi-Fi support, as the 5GHz band allows for faster data transfer rates 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, make sure your mobile hotspot device supports it.
People who are likely to stay away from an outlet want a mobile hotspot device with longer battery life. Some MiFi devices also support fast charging technologies such as Quick Charge, which may come in handy.
In addition, touch screen Mifi devices provide easier access to device settings and the display can show your connection details.
There is also something to earn for SIM-free MiFi devices, especially if you travel internationally. Instead of having to deal with expensive data charges for roaming, you can simply switch to a local SIM card with cheaper data rates. Unfortunately, this is not possible on carrier-locked MiFi devices. However, some carriers may allow the device to be unlocked after 60 days of purchase. The Netgear Unite Explore is a good example of a SIM-free mi-fi 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 is unlocked and supports GSM networks.