How to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot

Here's everything you need to know about Wi-Fi tethering.

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12. Can I use the phone as a hotspot and still make and receive calls and texts?

Yes, you can, and this extends to using the speakerphone as well. Using both features, however, can cut down on the Wi-Fi data flow available to connected devices.

13. Can I use a third-party tethering app instead of the one that comes with the phone?

Yes, there are several apps that let you set up a Wi-Fi hotspot. To the mobile data provider it looks like regular (not hotspot) data traffic. As a result, it doesn’t count towards your monthly hotspot data limit.

I don’t recommend any of these apps for iOS, as most are not available on the App Store and many require jailbreaking your iPhone. Third-party tethering apps are much easier to come by for Android. My current favorite is PdaNet+. It’s free and can be installed from the Google Play Store. It adds a very useful idle timer that shuts down the hotspot if nobody’s using it.   

PdaNet+ hotspot app for Android IDG

The PdaNet+ phone hotspot app for Android includes a timer that shuts down the hotspot after 2, 10 or 60 minutes of idle time.

14. How does using your phone as a hotspot compare to having a tablet or laptop with an LTE data card built in?

The ultimate convenience on the road is having a data connection built into all your mobile gear, but that can be an expensive proposition. The option for adding a mobile data card to a notebook or tablet generally costs $100 to $200 for the networking hardware; it’ll also cost your company a monthly usage fee from the network. This might make sense for those who travel a lot on business, but for occasional travelers, using a phone as a hotspot is a more cost-effective choice.

15. What are the pros and cons of using a dedicated mobile hotspot device versus using a phone?

A phone-based hotspot is self-contained and is generally always close at hand, so there’s nothing extra to carry, charge or potentially leave behind at a coffee shop. You don’t even need additional cables. On the downside, using your phone as a hotspot can quickly eat into your phone’s battery life, cutting down on its usefulness, and most phones support less than 10 connected devices.

By contrast, many dedicated hotspots can run for closer to a full workday, and some can connect with up to 15 clients, while weighing just a few ounces. Most mobile hotspots fit easily into a shirt pocket or small briefcase compartment. On the other hand, you’ll need to spend an extra $100 to $200 on the hardware or agree to a two-year contract.

A dedicated mobile hotspot can do something else: deliver up to 2TB of common storage space for all connected users to share. It can hold anything from a group presentation to archived business records for collaboration sessions.

Hotspotting worldwide

Over the past couple of years, my travels have taken me to such far-flung places as China, Korea, Central Europe, Great Britain and the Caucasus mountains. The common element is that I used my phone as a hotspot to connect my laptop, tablet and often my travel companions’ devices to the internet wherever I went.

I’ve had good and bad luck with hotspotting. I was recently able to connect at reasonable speeds in a hotel in The Hague, Netherlands, and on the train from Shanghai to Beijing. On the other hand, my worst Wi-Fi hotspot experience occurred in a rented house in London two years ago. The best my Samsung Galaxy S6 phone could deliver to my HP EliteBook laptop was 30Kbps to 50Kbps. It was just enough for basics like email, but after five or ten minutes of this web crawl, the connection would drop.

The best hotspot connection I was recently able to use was at a Think Coffee shop in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. I was able to connect my Note 8 to the T-Mobile network and deliver upwards of 80Mbps of download speed to my iPad Pro. It was more than enough to check in on things at the main office and watch a video of a client I was about to visit. I felt like I owned the world, or at least the internet. 

The oddest place I used my phone as a hotspot was near Mount Shahdagh, Azerbaijan, close to the Dagestani border. I got about 100Kbps of bandwidth, meager by most standards but lavish in such an isolated place. I fed the data into my iPad to check my email and look over a map of where we had been and were heading.

The bottom line is that the connection is only as good as both your phone and the network it’s using. While the 4G LTE network in America is just about fully built out on the coasts, it’s the middle that is the problem. Sparse coverage in rural areas, particularly in the Southwest and Northwest is the Achilles’ Heel of U.S. business travel.

US 4G coverage map OpenSignal IDG

4G coverage is sparse in several western states. Source: OpenSignal. (Click image to enlarge it.)

When there’s no network to connect to, the phone is just a small box with a screen and buttons. My advice is to check the OpenSignal coverage maps before going anyplace off the beaten track so you’ll know ahead of time if you’ll be able to get online and share the connection with your phone’s hotspot.

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