Using a Smartphone as an Internet Mobile Hotspot

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Here at CheapInternet.com, we’re all about finding inexpensive ways to access the internet and take advantage of all it has to offer. And we’ve come up with interesting ideas far beyond the government and private programs listed in our low-income internet access page. Consider this one:

Tethering And Mobile Hotspots: How They Work

Many people need to access the Internet on the go, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to use a smartphone’s data connection. Most smartphones can “tether” to computers, tablets and other Internet-capable devices by functioning as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. The phone accesses a cellular data network, most often a 3G or 4G network, and allows any device to access that network temporarily.

To tether a smartphone, you need to contact your phone provider to enable the feature, then use a special smartphone app or an option on your phone’s setting menu. You may need to physically connect your phone to your PC via a special USB cable that comes from your cell phone provider, but most newer phones allow for a completely wireless connection.

When tethering, your phone will create a new network that appears as a normal Wi-Fi network to your computer and other devices. You can then connect your computer to the Internet through the phone.

While this type of smart phone mobile hotspot has been around for a while, tethering gained popularity when Verizon launched its version of the iPhone. Verizon was the first company to offer tethering for the iPhone, although AT&T quickly followed suit.

How Much Does Tethering Cost?

Because tethering uses a smartphone’s standard data connection, some mobile companies offered the service for free. When Verizon started offering tethering for the iPhone, however, most mobile companies changed their pricing plans and began charging customers for tethering services.

Most cell phones cannot tether right out of the box unless you’ve enabled mobile hotspots on your data plan. Because computers and other devices use the Internet in a slightly different way than smartphones, your mobile provider can tell when you’re tethering and prevent the phone from acting as a working hotspot.

Pricing still varies greatly by phone provider and cell phone model, but major providers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint have plans that follow this general structure:

- 2GB of tethering costs $20 per month on top of the user’s regular data plan.
- Each additional gigabyte of data costs $10-20.
- There are no limits to the number or types of devices that the plan owner tethers to the data connection.

While most providers do not charge more than $20 for tethering (in addition to the cost of a standard cell phone plan), this number is subject to change, and major cell phone providers often run special pricing programs to attract new customers. If you are interested in tethering, you should contact your cell phone provider for up-to-date pricing information.

Alternatives To A New Cell Phone Plan

There are a number of third-party apps and services that allow mobile users to tether their phones without changing their cellular plans and adding an additional monthly charge to their bills. These services typically work by creating an ad-hoc connection with the phone through special software. To cell phone companies, the resulting mobile hotspot looks like a standard cell phone data connection. While the services don’t work with all cell phones or computers, they provide basic mobile hotspot functionality for some users at a cost of about $30-50 per year.

Some phone users “jailbreak” their phones to get free tethering. The process involves rolling back system software and using a third-party operating system, which invalidates the device’s warranty. While jailbreaking a smart phone is perfectly legal, it can have unexpected consequences, and cell phone providers have a number of ways to restrict the connections of smart phone users who attempt to tether without an appropriate data plan.

Why And When To Tether

While tethering provides decent speed and a great way to get an on-the-go Internet connection, it has limitations. Even on 4G connections, computer users usually cannot load large videos or download large files without experiencing some slowdown. This slowdown is a particularly notable problem when multiple computers or devices access the same mobile hotspot.

Tethering is also expensive at its extremes. Users can easily exceed the limitations of their data plans by tethering, which leads to automatic overage charges. Even if a user has an unlimited data plan, there are potential consequences. Many cell phone providers such as AT&&T will automatically reduce a user’s data speeds after the user consumes more than about 5-10GB per month.

Ultimately, tethering plans are a helpful option for smart phone users who spend a lot of time away from their home Internet connections. Using a tethering plan for an entire household’s Internet needs is infeasible, but with a fairly inexpensive tethering plan, a cell phone owner can use mobile hotspots to access the Internet from almost anywhere.

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