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.
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.
USB mobile broadband adapters
Mobile data access using dongles and other plug-in hardware goes back about a decade.
The service associates with the USB adapter, so you can easily move it from device to device. (Or if you’re doing IT provisioning, you can have several broadband dongles available to lend out, instead of paying for the built-in mobile broadband option when buying notebooks, as well as separate data plans for users.
Using a USB dongle instead of tethering your smartphone means you’re not putting any additional strain on your phone’s battery.
A mobile hotspot combines a cellular broadband adapter and a Wi-Fi router in a single remarkably compact package — slightly smaller than a deck of cards (not counting the AC adapter). As the name suggests, a mobile hotspot creates an 802.11 wireless zone that can be shared by a number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices — typically, up to four or five.
Mobile hotspots can be a distinct advantage if you use devices that don’t have USB ports (or only have one or two) or if you don’t want to cable your phone directly to your device. A single hotspot can connect several devices simultaneously.
So which is right for you: smartphone tethering, a USB adapter or a mobile hotspot? What you choose depends on your “use case” — how many devices and users you want to connect, whether the connecting device can stray away from the other devices or users, where you want to use it and so on.
If you’re just going to need an occasional connection for a tablet or laptop when Wi-Fi is unavailable, then tethering your device to your smartphone may be the best way to go. If you find you need cell connectivity on a more regular basis, a USB adapter could work better for you.