Smartphone users have gotten used to having 3G/4G connectivity whenever they're away from a Wi-Fi network. However, if you're using a tablet or a laptop, that's often a different story.
Not all mobile devices offer broadband access to cellular data networks as a built-in option. And when the option is available, not everyone is prepared to bump the purchase price to have those capabilities. According to Jeff Orr, group director for consumer research, ABI Research, "29% of media tablets sold worldwide during 2011 had a 3G or 4G modem module in them." That's about 1.2 million, he adds.
That leaves a lot of mobile device users in search of Internet access when they're not near a Wi-Fi hotspot. If you're one of these, you have three options:
- Use your smartphone as a broadband modem by tethering it to your device.
- Purchase a USB external mobile broadband adapter, along with a carrier service plan.
- Purchase a broadband wireless hotspot device (along with a carrier service plan), which creates a small Wi-Fi service zone and allows several (typically, up to four or five) devices to share the connection.
Each approach has its pros and cons. In general, you're pitting simplicity against flexibility, impact on phone battery against longer runtime, and the cost of using one higher-volume service plan against having multiple plans. Within each category, service availability and pricing are likely to strongly affect your decision.
Tethering with your smartphone
Tethering -- sharing your smartphone's broadband service with other devices -- can be done using a phone-to-USB cable or wirelessly via Wi-Fi (or, for some devices, Bluetooth).
You can tether your phone to another device if the carrier allows it, the smartphone supports it and you've got a service plan that includes tethering. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all offer tethering options as part of their smartphone data plans.
If your current data plan doesn't already include tethering, you'll need to upgrade the plan -- typically also upping your bandwidth allotment. For example, AT&T minimally offers 5GB of "tetherable" data for an additional $50/month, Sprint also offers 5GB for a lower $29.99/month, T-Mobile's least expensive plan that allows tethering is $84.99/month and Verizon Wireless gives you 2GB for $20/month. If you go over these amounts, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all charge $10 per gigabyte; T-Mobile's plan is "overage-free," throttling speeds instead of charging more money.
Tethering with a cable means you can connect just one device at a time. You can also tether using Bluetooth; in that case, the number of devices varies -- for example, you can tether one device via Android and up to three on an iPhone 4. (However, a Bluetooth connection will probably be considerably slower than a Wi-Fi connection.) Phones that support Wi-Fi hotspot tethering can connect up eight devices at once -- although the connection speed will likely suffer as multiple users are added.
- If there's one device you're likely to have with you, it's your phone. You don't need any additional devices, data cables or power/charging cables and adapters. (A wired tether can usually be done with the same USB cable you use to charge your phone.)
- You use the same data plan you have for your phone -- though you may have to upgrade that plan.
- Tethering can be especially useful if you have a number of mobile devices and only occasionally want to get online with each.
- Tethering can seriously reduce battery run-time on your phone. You'll want to always have your phone AC charger on you. And possibly a pocket battery.
- Your phone needs to remain near whatever you're tethering to, which can be inconvenient if you need to take a call or carry your phone away from the device it's tethered to.
- Some carrier/phone combos don't let you do voice and data at the same time -- which means that placing or taking a call will interrupt your data activity.