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Wi-Fi tethering 101: Use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot

November 4, 2011 06:00 AM ET
What speed and range can be expected?
Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch
Samsung's Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch can be a mobile hotspot for Sprint customers.

The connection speed depends on many variables, including the cell network you're connecting to, how far you are from the network's closest transmission tower and how congested the Internet is at that moment in time. I've had connections on Verizon's 4G LTE network that hit 25Mbps, but others that barely got to 100Kbps. About 300Kbps of bandwidth is a reasonable expectation.

When it comes to 3G and 4G data networks, geography is destiny. Even as Sprint and Verizon roll out their 4G networks to select cities (with AT&T's LTE rollout due to begin soon), there are still many places in the U.S., particularly in the upper Midwest, that don't have data coverage, period. Consult the coverage maps on the carriers' websites to find out if you'll be able to access a data network where you need it.

Typically, the phone's Wi-Fi signal has a range of about 100 feet, so it works well in a temporary office, at the beach or even in the largest hotel suite. One thing to keep in mind is that, as with Wi-Fi routers, the signal's strength and bandwidth decline as you get farther from the hotspot.

Can you tether and talk on the phone at the same time?

That depends on the phone and network it lives on. Most 4G phones can do this without a problem; phones on older CDMA-based 3G networks can't; and phones that run on HSPA-based 3G networks are a mixed bag. If this is an important factor, it's best to consult our chart and the carriers themselves to determine if a particular phone can support voice and data at the same time.

How much does tethering cost?

Each network's tethering plan is different, so it's hard to compare them. Shop carefully to reduce the sticker shock when the first bill arrives. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Verizon charges $20 per month for tethering on top of your base data plan (which costs between $30 and $80), and it provides an extra 2GB of data per month.
  • Sprint charges the most to use your phone as a hotspot: $30 in addition to your regular data plan (costs range from $30 to $100). It doesn't provide any extra data above what your data plan offers. If you have an unlimited smartphone data plan, your mobile hotspot data use is limited to 5GB per month.
  • T-Mobile is the cheapest at $15 per month above your regular data plan (prices range from $40 to $70). Like Sprint, it provides no extra data.
  • AT&T doesn't charge extra for tethering but instead has a complete 4GB data plan that includes tethering for $45 per month.
  • If you go over the allotted amount of data, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon will charge an overage fee and likely try to sell you a monthly plan with a larger limit. T-Mobile will slow your data flow to a crawl.
  • To subscribe to a tethering plan, you set up a monthly payment that's included in your bill whether you use tethering that month or not. However, there's no long-term contract attached to these plans, so you can cancel and restart your plan as needed; you just have to remember to actively manage it in this way if you need tethering only occasionally.
  • None of the carriers offers a one-time or day-pass option for tethering.
  • As always in the mobile world, things can change quickly, so check with your carrier for the most up-to-date pricing and plan info before making any decisions.
Can I use a third-party tethering app instead of paying the carrier's subscription fee?

Yes and no. If you like to surf dangerously and if your phone has Wi-Fi built in, you can download and use apps such as MyWi for the iPhone, Android WiFi Tether for Android or JoikuSpot Light WiFi Hotspot for Symbian to turn your phone into a hotspot. Each basically does what the phone's built-in tethering app does, but without the knowledge, approval or expense of the carrier.

HTC Radar 4G
As the first U.S. phone to offer Windows Phone 7.5, the HTC Radar 4G supports Wi-Fi tethering for T-Mobile customers.

Needless to say, the carriers don't like when you do this because it cuts into their revenues, and they often monitor their networks for these apps. If you get caught, some networks will shut off your service, while others will automatically upgrade you to a tethering plan and start charging you for the service. In other words, your next monthly bill might contain a surprise. My advice is to read the very fine print in the service agreement to see what your rights are and where you stand.

Can these phones work as hotspots overseas?

Some can, some can't. You'll need to make sure that your phone of choice can before buying it. Generally speaking, if the phone supports HSPA or HSPA+ technology, it can work throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as parts of Africa, Asia and South America. You'll need to upgrade your service plan to include international data, though.

As an alternative, when you're out of the country, In-Stat's Nogee suggests renting -- through a phone rental service such as CelloMobile -- a smartphone that can act as a hotspot. For example, you can rent an HTC MyTouch 4G, which will work in any European Union country as well as in Switzerland, and will act as a hotspot for up to four devices. It costs $12 a day, $80 a week or $200 a month and comes with 500MB of data per rental. The best part: no long-term commitment needed.

Check out our chart of hotspot smartphones -- or keep reading to see what it's actually like to use one in the real world.

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