How to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot

Here’s everything you need to know about Wi-Fi tethering from your phone.

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11. How does using a hotspot affect battery life?

Speaking of battery life, turning on the hotspot abilities of your phone is like firing up a micro router, which seriously cuts into its battery life; I suggest that if there’s an AC outlet nearby, plug in. For example, while I can get about 36 hours of use with occasional calls, texts, emails and web work on my Galaxy S20 Ultra phone, using it as a hotspot feeding data to an iPad Pro playing videos drops battery life to a little over 10 hours. That’s a decline of 72%, but still more than enough for a full day of work and mobile internet.

12. What speed and range can I expect?

All four mobile data networks in the U.S. use 4G LTE equipment with fiber-optic data backbones, and 5G service is being added quickly. The actual results depend on lots of factors, including how congested the internet is, how far you are from a closest cell tower and how many other people are using that cell site. Over the years, I’ve gotten everything from a measly 20Kbps (enough for email and basic use) to 250Mbps (plenty for HD video, downloading a large presentation or supporting a small group of data hogs).

Recently, my Galaxy S20 Ultra phone was able to get a sustained connection of about 75Mbps on the T-Mobile network. Using it as a hotspot yielded a slightly lower 73Mbps when it was connected to my $2,300 HP Elite Dragonfly notebook.

A phone hotspot can’t compare to a traditional router in terms of range, though. Still, you can expect to create a 40- to 50-foot zone of connectivity. This should be plenty for personal use or for a small group in a hotel room or huddling around a conference room table.

13. 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.

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 10 or fewer connected devices.

Many dedicated hotspots can also run for 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.

Global hotspotter

Over the past few years, my travels have taken me to such far-flung places as Washington, D.C., Maine, 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. Over the years, I connected at reasonable speeds in a hotel in The Hague, Netherlands, on the train from Shanghai to Beijing, and on the island of Malta. On the other hand, my worst Wi-Fi hotspot experience occurred in a rented house in London four 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 Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, where my S20 Ultra phone pushed upwards of 250Mbps over T-Mobile’s network. It was more than enough to make me feel like I was at my home office with access to all my files and the ability to video chat. 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. As the nation’s 4G LTE network is augmented with 5G hardware, data speeds should increase for hotspot connections (see “Triple play: 5G bands”). Unfortunately, rural areas will continue to be serviced with slower connection speeds. For those who take the road less traveled, this can be an annoyance.

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 (available via its mobile app) 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. Note, however, that while OpenSignal lets you choose between 3G and 4G coverage, the maps don’t include 5G data, so they provide only a partial answer.

phone mobile hotspot opensignal app coverage map IDG

Check OpenSignal's coverage maps before going off the beaten track.

This story was originally published in November 2011 and most recently updated in July 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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