What is tethering and how does it work on your phone?

If you own a smartphone or a tablet, then you may have tried using mobile data to connect your laptop or other internet-capable devices to the internet. That is where tethering and mobile hotspots come in.

Tethering allows you to use your mobile phone as a WiFi hotspot which any internet-capable devices such as laptops can connect to in order to access the internet. Smartphones have the option to enable portable hotspots that use mobile data (2G/3G/4G/5G) to create WiFi coverage.

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 made use of high-speed packet access techniques like HSPA and EVDO to enable internet through cellular networks. With 4G LTE, the average data speeds achievable through the mobile networks have improved considerably. Nowadays, people can use 4G also for services that they could previously only use on fixed broadband. As a result, mobile hotspots and tethering have increasingly gained popularity over the last few years.

So what exactly is tethering?

With tethering, you can use the mobile data available on your mobile phone or tablet to connect your other devices to the internet. The simplest way of doing that is by enabling the personal/portable hotspot option on your smartphone to create a WiFi hotspot as shown in the diagram below. For tethering, the connection does not have to use WiFi and can also be established via Bluetooth or through a USB cable.

Conceptual view of tethering and mobile hotspot

How do you enable tethering and mobile hotspots?

Smartphones make it simpler to tether 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.

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

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

What data speeds can you get when you tether?

The internet speed you get through tethering depends a lot on your location. 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 comparable to fixed broadband speeds. If you are in an area where you often see the H+ sign on your mobile phone, you can still expect decent internet speeds as H+ is a 3G technology for high-speed data. On the other hand, if you find yourself in areas where the ‘E’ sign keeps appearing on your phone quite frequently, then your data speeds may be slow as the ‘E’ sign represents EDGE which is a 2G technology.

Just to make things a bit more real, we created a couple of mobile hotspots using two smartphones and recorded the resulting data speeds. The smartphones were using SIMs from two major mobile operators in the UK. We were stationary and the phones were indoors in a town called Earley (Berkshire) on a Saturday afternoon (Jul 2020). We locked the phone(s) to 2G first, then to 3G and then we selected the auto mode which enabled 4G on the phones. You can check mobile coverage in the UK by clicking on this link from Ofcom.

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+

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 that 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 very useful when you are moving home as the fixed broadband connection can usually take some time to get sorted. It is especially useful when you are outdoors e.g. on a train or airport and want to use your own reliable internet instead of the 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.

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