How is tethering different from 4G and 5G mobile hotspots?

If you use your mobile phone as a backup when your home broadband is down, then you may have come across the terms tethering and mobile hotspot before. Tethering in mobile communications refers to a technique that allows your mobile phone to share its mobile data with other internet-enabled devices. The most common way of achieving that is by enabling the mobile hotspot option on your phone. The other handy option is using a USB cable, especially if you need to connect only one device to the internet, e.g. your work laptop. The picture below depicts the high-level concept of tethering and hotspots. 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 the evolution of 4G LTE, the average data speed achievable through mobile networks has improved considerably. As a result, mobile hotspots or tethering have increasingly gained popularity over the last few years.

Tethering and mobile hotspots in 4G and 5G phones are interrelated as hotspots are a type of tethering. A mobile hotspot uses a WiFi connection to tether to the devices that need the internet e.g. a laptop. Tethering is not limited to WiFi and can also be achieved through USB cables and Bluetooth.

Tethering: How Do I Tether My Phone?

What does tethering mean on my phone?

When you connect your mobile phone to any other device through a wired or wireless connection, that means you are using the tethering capability on your phone. When tethered to another device, your mobile phone allows you to share your mobile internet with that device. In today’s world, with the advent of 4G and 5G network technologies, tethering can allow you to share your phone’s high-speed mobile internet with other internet-enabled devices such as laptops and tablets.

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 hot-spotting is visualised in the diagram below.

Conceptual view of mobile hotspot through wireless tethering

What is the difference between tethering and hotspot?

Tethering and hotspot are inter-related terminologies; however, tethering is a broader term as it represents a connection that can be wired or wireless. For example, tethering can occur when you connect your mobile phone to a laptop via a USB cable, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. On the other hand, hotspot usually refers to Wi-Fi hotspots because that’s how we used to live our lives before the mobile hotspotting capability on our phones. However, on certain mobile devices such as iPhones, the term hotspot or personal hotspot covers Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB tethering.

How Does Mobile Hotspot Work?

Creating a mobile hotspot is the simplest way to tether and it is the method most of us can easily use. Smartphones nowadays have the option to turn on the mobile hotspot to enable wireless internet connectivity. Generally, you need to go into network/internet settings on any smartphone to find this option, and when it is enabled, the phone shows a symbol like the one in the picture below.

Mobile hotspot symbol displayed on a phone
Mobile hotspot symbol displayed on a phone

On an iPhone, you can find this option by going into “Settings” and then “Personal Hotspot”, which will display the following screen. In Android phones, depending on the phone manufacturer, this option may appear in different locations.

Where to find a Wi-Fi hotspot in an iPhone
Where to find a Wi-Fi hotspot in an iPhone

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
Mobile hotspot setting in iPhone 8

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.
Hotspot setting for Huawei Mate 10 Pro

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
Mobile hotspot setting for Samsung Galaxy A10

How USB and bluetooth tethering options work

There are at least three ways of using tethering on your phone, including two wireless options and one wired option. The two wireless options are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the wired option is the USB cable. Both Android phones and iPhones support these three options; however, the terminologies are expressed slightly differently depending on the phone manufacturer. For example, in iPhones, all three tethering options are grouped under “Personal Hotspot”. In Android phones, depending on the manufacturer, the hotspot option is shown as Wi-Fi Hotspot, whereas the other two options are termed Bluetooth tethering and USB tethering.

How to use a USB cable to tether?

While it may be a bit uncommon nowadays to find non-WiFi ways of accessing the internet, your mobile phone can provide you with multiple ways to share your mobile internet with other devices. One handy way is the USB cable which allows you to tether your phone to your laptop whilst also charging your phone simultaneously. Below is how you tether a Google Pixel 5 phone to your laptop to access the high-speed mobile internet.

  1. The first and the most obvious step is to connect your mobile phone to your laptop using a USB cable.
  2. You then need to go into your phone settings and tap the “Network and Internet” option.
  3. There you can tap “Hotspot and tethering”.
  4. You can use the “USB tethering” toggle button to enable the sharing of the internet.
  5. As soon as you have done that, you should get connected and see the LAN/Internet symbol in the notification area as shown in one of the pictures below.
This is where you enable USB tethering on a Google Pixel 5 Android phone
Step 5: This is where you see the connectivity status when connected via a USB cable to access mobile internet

How to use Bluetooth to tether?

If you want to use Bluetooth for tethering a mobile phone to a laptop, then you may follow the steps below:

  1. The first step is to pair your phone to the laptop. On a PC/laptop, you may go into “Settings”, then “Devices” and then “Bluetooth & other devices”. There you can find the option to add your phone and pair it.
  2. Once the pairing is done, you may have an additional step in some phones (e.g. some Android phones) to enable Bluetooth tethering by tapping a toggle button as shown in the picture below. In iPhones, you don’t have this step.
  3. Then you need to go into your PC/laptop “Settings”–>”Network & Internet”, and then “Change adapter options”.
  4. There you should see “Bluetooth Network Connection”, which you can right click to be able to view “Bluetooth network devices”.
  5. When you view the Bluetooth network devices, you should see the name of your paired phone on the computer screen.
  6. Finally, you right-click on the device/phone and connect using “Access Point”.
This is where you can enable Bluetooth tethering on your phone (step # 2)
This is where you find “Change adapter options” on your PC – Windows 10 (step # 3)
This is where you see Bluetooth Network Connection (Step # 4)
This is where you see the phone that you had paired (Step # 5)

Which is faster tethering or mobile hotspot?

Tethering and hotspot do the same thing as they both allow a mobile phone to create internet connectivity for another device such as a laptop. The speed of the connection is not about tethering vs hotspot but primarily about the cellular technology being used i.e. 3G, 4G or 5G. 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 mobile hotspots (WiFi enabled) 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+

The other thing that can also impact your speed is the type of connectivity i.e. it is WiFi or USB or Bluetooth. Bluetooth has a low bandwidth, and therefore, it cannot support high-speed data services. On the other hand, Wi-Fi and USB do not have this challenge and therefore are more suitable for using broadband services when using tethering. We did a quick test to compare how the download and upload speeds differ when we use USB, mobile hotspot (WiFi hotspot) and Bluetooth for tethering. To do this test in a fair manner, we used the same cellular technology (4G LTE) and the same 4G phone for each test case.

Connectivity TypeNetwork TypeDownload SpeedUpload Speed
USB cable4G network63.55 Mbps34.75 Mbps
Wi-Fi hotspot4G network 50.01 Mbps12.59 Mbps
Bluetooth4G network 1.31 Mbps1.38 Mbps

—Tethering an Android mobile phone on 4G network to a laptop, UK, Sept 2021—

Are tethering and mobile hotspots bad for your phone?

When you use your 4G or 5G mobile phone as a hotspot, your nearby devices can easily connect to the internet and get decent speeds as 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 same concept applies if you are using Bluetooth tethering however with USB tethering you may find that you can charge your phone through your computer so the battery drainage is potentially less. However, the main limitation of USB tethering is the fact that you can only connect it to one device at a time. On the additional data consumption side, unless you have sufficient data allowance as part of your monthly mobile plan (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.

Can hotspots and tethering cost extra?

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/tethering shall come out of that. If you don’t have a lot of data allowance in your mobile plan (e.g. 3 GB per month) and you use up all the allowance and even go over, then your mobile operator may charge you for data overage. You can overcome this issue by adding data-cap or spend-cap to your mobile plan.

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 allow tethering. In the UK, for example, mobile operators allow you to use your mobile tariff for tethering /hotspotting also because it is your data so you can do whatever you want with it. However, depending on where you are, it is advisable to check with your local mobile operator(s) especially if you are buying a tariff with a lot of data with tethering/hot-spotting in mind. When you tether, your data consumption comes out of your monthly data allowance which is part of your mobile plan. With many mobile operators already offering unlimited data packages, the tethering option can become even more popular.

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

Tethering and mobile hotspots are very much interrelated. A mobile hotspot is a type of tethering that 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., to the internet. Tethering however is not limited to mobile/WiFi hotspots only and can be achieved through Bluetooth and USB cable also. 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, 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 you 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 the product overview and product roadmap.

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