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

Everything you need to know about Wi-Fi tethering

November 4, 2011 06:00 AM ET
Wi-Fi tethering

Computerworld - Buried inside many of the latest smartphones is a capability that few people take advantage of. A feature called tethering lets a phone go beyond talk, email and Web surfing to act as a mobile hotspot that can supply Web access to nearby computers, tablets and other devices.

"It lets [smartphone users] always have the Web with them without taking any extra equipment along," says Allen Nogee, research director for wireless technology at market intelligence firm In-Stat.

Like dedicated mobile hotspot devices, these phones connect to a mobile data network and then act as a Wi-Fi router, distributing the bandwidth to nearby clients. There is a price to pay for the convenience that hotspot phones provide: Three of the four national networks charge an additional fee to use tethering. On the other hand, you don't have to worry about finding a public Wi-Fi hotspot or having another device to buy, lug around, keep charged and accidentally leave behind.

Want to know more? After speaking to analysts, network engineers and other mobile experts, I've rounded up and answered the 12 most common questions about smartphone tethering, including options and carrier policies. Additionally, I used a couple of smartphones as hotspots in various parts of the U.S. and Europe to discover what the experience is like in real life.

Finally, I've gathered a listing of all the hotspot-capable smartphones currently available from the Big Four U.S. carriers, including how much they cost, which network(s) they work on and how much tethering services cost.

FAQ: Tethering with a hotspot phone

What is tethering?

Tethering is the ability to share a smartphone's Internet connection with computers or other devices. It can be accomplished by connecting the devices with a USB cable, a Bluetooth wireless link or a Wi-Fi connection. This story concentrates on Wi-Fi hotspot tethering because it's convenient and can service more than one client at a time -- and because just about all laptops and tablets have Wi-Fi built in these days.

How does a hotspot phone work?

After connecting to the mobile phone data network, the smartphone can distribute its Internet connection to several clients via a Wi-Fi connection. Any Wi-Fi-enabled computer or tablet can connect to it, and the real bonus is that the Wi-Fi router is inside your phone so there's no extra stuff to carry with you and no other device to recharge.

Which phones and networks support Wi-Fi tethering?

All four national mobile data networks -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- offer phones that can act as Wi-Fi hotspots, and there are about 60 smartphones available today that can perform this task. They come from the major phone makers; use a variety of mobile operating systems, including Android, BlackBerry, iOS, webOS and Windows Phone; and come in a variety of sizes and shapes. At the moment, Android offers the most options, with around four dozen hotspot-capable models available.

HTC Inspire 4G
AT&T customers can use the HTC Inspire 4G as a mobile hotspot.

I've used phone hotspots in my office, in my home, on trains and in a moving car. Basically, wherever you can get a mobile data connection, you can broadcast it with a hotspot phone.

Does Wi-Fi tethering make the phone any bigger or heavier?

No. Wi-Fi tethering requires that the phone have a Wi-Fi chip built in, but smartphones already have this for connecting at Internet caf├ęs or at the office. The hotspot ability is enabled by software and doesn't add to the bulk of a phone. In fact, there are hotspot phones that weigh as little as 3.2 oz.

Is the setup hard to do?

Anyone who's set up a Wi-Fi router or used a mobile hotspot can enable Wi-Fi tethering. To get the phone to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot, you need to start the tethering app by tapping on its icon; it usually has some variation of "mobile hotspot" in its name so it's hard to miss.

The details vary based on the phone in question, but after clicking a box to turn the hotspot on, you'll typically need to configure it by typing in a network name, choosing its encryption type and designating a security password. (You only have to do this once.) Most hotspot phones are up to date with WPA2 protection so that outsiders can't tap into your mobile network or read any data. Setup takes a couple of minutes; when you're done, the phone is ready to be used as a hotspot.

How difficult is it to connect devices to the phone's hotspot?

It's no more difficult to connect a notebook or tablet to a hotspot smartphone than it is to connect one to a home or office Wi-Fi router. The network name shows up on the Wi-Fi connection screen, and you are required to type in the network's password the first time you connect. After that, you can set it up to connect automatically.

What clients can connect to the hotspot and how many clients will it support?

A hotspot phone can link to any device that has Wi-Fi networking. I've used hotspot phones with various laptops, an iPad and several Android tablets.

The phone can supply an Internet connection to as many as 5 to 8 clients, depending on the model. Be warned, though -- the connection speed is often not enough to spread across several users, and you might be disappointed.

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