Hotspotting: What is a mobile hotspot?

Over the last months, as part of working from home during the lockdowns, you may have experienced situations where your home broadband had issues, and you had to use your mobile phone as an internet backup. If you did that, then you may already know what a mobile hotspot is. Even before the 4G networks, we used to have devices like 3G data cards and USB dongles to connect our laptops to the internet. Those devices used high-speed packet access techniques like HSPA and EVDO to enable the internet through cellular networks. With 4G LTE, the average data speeds achievable through the mobile networks have improved considerably. As a result, mobile hotspots or tethering have increasingly gained popularity over the last few years. A new term, hotspotting, is also used to describe the concept of tethering.

What Is A Mobile Hotspot?

A mobile hotspot is when you use a mobile cellular device such as a smartphone or a SIM-enabled tablet to create WiFi coverage that allows any internet-capable devices to connect to the internet. It was possible to do the same thing using a USB cable or Bluetooth in the earlier days, and the concept was called tethering. With the introduction of mobile hotspots, tethering has gone to another level because the connectivity is through WiFi instead of a cable or Bluetooth. The basic concept of hotspotting is visualised in the diagram below.

Conceptual view of mobile hotspot through wireless tethering

How fast are mobile hotspots?

The data speeds you get via mobile hotspots depend on the cellular technology used to provide the hotspot capability. If you find yourself in an area with good 4G/4G+ coverage both indoors and outdoors, then you can expect your achievable data speeds to be 16-66 Mbps in download, as shown below. However, if you live in an area where you mostly only see the H+ sign on your mobile phone, you can expect a lot lower speeds. The worst case is if you mostly have 2G coverage in your area, which can only deliver meagre data rates. We have some real-life examples below from 2G, 3G and 4G networks to show you what speeds hotspots can deliver on each of these networks.

Results when a laptop was connected to mobile hotspots offering 2G EDGE and 3G HSPA+
Results when a laptop was connected to mobile hotspots offering 4G LTE and LTE+

Is it bad for your phone to use it as a hotspot?

When you use a mobile phone as a hotspot with 4G LTE or 5G NR networks, your nearby devices can easily connect to the internet and get decent speeds like those shown above. But to achieve that, the mobile phone has to do a lot of work which consumes extra battery power. Firstly, it consumes more data on behalf of other devices which in turn consumes more power. Secondly, the mobile phone ends up doing a dual job, i.e. communicating with the mobile base station via 3G/4G/5G and communicating with other connected devices through WiFi, increasing power consumption considerably. The other aspect is data consumption, and unless you have sufficient data allowance as part of your monthly tariff, you may not be left with a lot of data for the rest of the month for general phone use. Therefore, from a device perspective, you are better off using a purpose-built mobile WiFi router, e.g. an LTE router or a 5G router connected to a power source to provide consistent WiFi connectivity.

How much is a hotspot per month?

When you use your mobile phone as a hotspot, all the data consumption goes out of your data allowance provided by your mobile subscription. So, for example, if you have a mobile tariff that gives you 50 GB of data monthly, then whatever internet is consumed through hotspotting shall come out of that. In the UK, it is absolutely acceptable using your mobile tariff as a hotspot. However, depending on where you are, you can check with your local mobile operator(s) if they allow tethering.

How Does Mobile Hotspot Tethering Work?

Smartphones make it very easy to create hotspots by tethering your phone to devices like laptops, tablets, Smart TVs and even other mobile phones. Usually, the tethering option can be found under ‘Settings’ both in the iPhones as well as the Android phones. You are likely to see the term ‘hotspot’ used in some way, e.g. personal hotspot, portable hotspot or mobile hotspot in most phones for the purposes of tethering. We have captured some examples below using an iPhone 8 (iOS) and two Android phones (Huawei Mate 10 Pro and Samsung Galaxy A10) for your reference.

A visual representation of how a mobile hotspot works
A visual representation of how a mobile hotspot works

How do I connect to mobile hotspot on iPhone?

On iPhone 8:

If you have an iPhone 8, you can follow the simple steps listed below. There are also some screenshots to help you visualise.

  1. Go to ‘Settings’
  2. ‘Personal Hotspot’
  3. Slide ‘Allow Others to Join’ to the On position
  4. You can click on the password and change it if you wish

How do I connect to mobile hotspot on Android?

On Huawei Mate 10 Pro

On Huawei Mate 10 Pro which is an Android phone, you can use the following steps to create a mobile hotspot. We also have some screenshots to help you visualise.

  1. Go to Settings (gear icon)
  2. ‘Mobile network’
  3. ‘Tethering & portable hotspot’
  4. ‘Personal hotspot’
  5. Then you’ll see a screen with your personal hotspot name
  6. Simply slide the hotspot switch to ‘On’ position and you are good to go. You may also use the options to configure your hotspot e.g. change hotspot name, password etc.

On Samsung Galaxy A10

If you have a Samsung Galaxy A10, you can use the following steps to create your personal hotspot. 

  1. Go to Settings (gear icon)
  2. ‘Connections’
  3. ‘Mobile Hotspot and Tethering’
  4. Then slide ‘Mobile Hotspot’ to the ‘On’ position

Do mobile operators allow tethering?

Mobile operators normally have their policies around tethering and in the past, there used to be some limitations in terms of how much data could be used when tethering. Nowadays though, tethering is becoming a lot more common and most mobile operators (at least in the UK) allow tethering. To be on the safe side, it is best to check with your mobile operator especially if you are buying a tariff with a lot of data with tethering in mind.

When you tether, your data consumption comes out of your monthly data allowance which is part of your mobile plan. For example, if you have a mobile plan with unlimited minutes & text and 20GB of data, then the data that you consume when tethering will come out of your 20GB. With many mobile operators already offering unlimited data packages, the tethering option can become even more popular.

What does hotspot mean for my home broadband?

At the moment, many people use tethering as a ‘backup’ option in case something goes wrong with their home broadband. For example, if you are working from home and all of a sudden your home WiFi disappears, your mobile hotspot or tethering can save the day for you. It can also be beneficial when moving home as the fixed broadband connection can usually take some time to get sorted. It is handy when you are outdoors, e.g. on a train or airport and want to use your own reliable internet instead of public WiFi.

While the 4G/4G+ data speeds may already be comparable to fixed broadband speeds, tethering is not a full-time alternative to your regular broadband connection. If your location or situation makes it difficult to use fixed broadband, Mobile Broadband can fill that gap as long as you have decent 4G coverage. The data speeds on 2G/3G/4G mobile networks can’t be guaranteed, so if your lifestyle requires a certain broadband standard then you need to evaluate your options based on the availability and reliability of fixed and mobile networks in your area. The other important aspect is the data allowance as you don’t easily get unlimited data with most tariffs. Even though many mobile operators are already offering unlimited data, it is yet to become mainstream.

Mobile hotspot vs. MiFi

While tethering is a good option to connect your devices to the internet using mobile data, there are also some downsides to be aware of. When you use your smartphone as a hotspot, it does emit WiFi signals which can quickly drain the battery of your smartphone. The range of a mobile hotspot created through a smartphone is not great, so if you connect multiple devices to your smartphone hotspot, you can’t take your phone too far away from the devices without interrupting the WiFi signal. If using mobile internet is a more frequent thing for you, getting a dedicated mobile broadband router or MiFi router might be a more practical option. MiFi routers are purpose-built and some even have Ethernet ports which can come in handy. You will also need an additional mobile connection i.e. a data-only SIM for your MiFi device.

Conclusion

A mobile hotspot enables you to use your mobile phone as a WiFi hotspot so that you can connect any of your internet-capable devices such as laptops, tablets, smart TVs etc., can connect to the internet. Smartphones have the option to enable portable mobile hotspots that utilise the existing data allowance within your mobile tariff to provide WiFi coverage.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy which explains the network nodes e.g. BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on product overview and product roadmap.

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