July 28, 2012, 7:06 AM — 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. According to Jeff Orr, group director for consumer research, ABI Research, "29% of media tablets sold worldwide during 2011 had a 3G or 4G modem module in them." That's about 1.2 million, he adds.
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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 plans.
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. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all offer tethering options as part of their smartphone data plans.
Tethering apps for smartphones
If you want to try to tether without changing your data plan, there are some tethering apps out there.
But be aware that your service carrier may not approve of the use of these apps, possibly leaving you open to carrier fines. In addition, iPhone users will have to jailbreak their devices first, something that Apple definitely doesn't approve of -- and which may create other problems with your device.
If your current data plan doesn't already include tethering, you'll need to upgrade the plan -- typically also upping your bandwidth allotment. For example, AT&T minimally offers 5GB of "tetherable" data for an additional $50/month, Sprint also offers 5GB for a lower $29.99/month, T-Mobile's least expensive plan that allows tethering is $84.99/month and Verizon Wireless gives you 2GB for $20/month. If you go over these amounts, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all charge $10 per gigabyte; T-Mobile's plan is "overage-free," throttling speeds instead of charging more money.
Tethering with a cable means you can connect just one device at a time. You can also tether using Bluetooth; in that case, the number of devices varies -- for example, you can tether one device via Android and up to three on an iPhone 4. (However, a Bluetooth connection will probably be considerably slower than a Wi-Fi connection.) Phones that support Wi-Fi hotspot tethering can connect up eight devices at once -- although the connection speed will likely suffer as multiple users are added.
" If there's one device you're likely to have with you, it's your phone. You don't need any additional devices, data cables or power/charging cables and adapters. (A wired tether can usually be done with the same USB cable you use to charge your phone.)
" You use the same data plan you have for your phone -- though you may have to upgrade that plan.
" Tethering can be especially useful if you have a number of mobile devices and only occasionally want to get online with each.
" Tethering can seriously reduce battery run-time on your phone. You'll want to always have your phone AC charger on you. And possibly a pocket battery.
" Your phone needs to remain near whatever you're tethering to, which can be inconvenient if you need to take a call or carry your phone away from the device it's tethered to.
" Some carrier/phone combos don't let you do voice and data at the same time -- which means that placing or taking a call will interrupt your data activity.
USB mobile broadband adapters
Mobile data access using dongles and other plug-in hardware goes back about a decade. Novatel Wireless, for example, introduced PC card mobile adapters around 2000, according to John Ross, VP of product management for the company.
You can find USB modems from major (and minor) manufacturers. For example, Verizon Wireless currently offers two 4G USB modems, one costing $20 and the other $100 (along with a two-year contract); a data plan costs $50/month for 5GB and $80/month for 10GB. AT&T offers a single $30 device at $50/month for 5G. Sprint offers two modems, each free with a two-year contract, with data plans that offer $50/month for 6GB or $80/month for 12GB. And T-Mobile also offers two free USB modems for $40/month for 2GB, $50 for 5GB and $80 for 10GB (after you reach the maximum, T-Mobile will reduce speeds).
Many of these are using hardware from the same manufacturer. Pricing and service availability in the locations you'll be in are more important when choosing a service provider. If you're satisfied with your current carrier, that's probably the one to start with. (Or you may decide it's time to try a new carrier.)
" Transferability: 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.)
" You don't have to make potential-carrier decisions as part of doing a notebook purchase. The growing use of Qualcomm Gobi multi-mode chipsets in broadband radio circuitry has led to some flexibility for embedded broadband in laptops, but a given user may still need something that Gobi doesn't support.
" Using a USB dongle instead of tethering your smartphone means you're not putting any additional strain on your phone's battery.
" It is less expensive than a hotspot.
" You have to remember to bring it.
" It requires subscribing to a data plan separate from your smartphone's data plan.
" It can connect only one device at a time.
" If you're using a broadband dongle with a laptop, it may be difficult to position it for optimum reception (packing a short USB cable can help with this).
" Like anything poking out of a notebook port, it's vulnerable to being leaned on or banged.
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.