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.
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.
The reach of the hotspot will vary from device to device. For example, according to the manufacturer, the Wi-Fi network created by Novatel's MiFi 4620L (also marketed as the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE mobile hotspot) "spreads up to 100 feet line of sight (radius, device to device), but is optimal for fast data throughput at 33 feet." Security will similarly vary among devices; the 4620L supports WEP, WPA and WPA2.
The first mobile hotspots began shipping in 2007, according to Jeff Orr of ABI Research, and were designed for the enterprise, offering features including VPNs, local storage and rights-and-permissions management. Newer ones are being aimed at consumers and individual business users, available not just from carriers and online but also in brick-and-mortar chains like Best Buy, Costco, Radio Shack and Target.
Mobile hotspots have yet to hit their sales stride -- according to Orr, only about 2.4 million were sold in the U.S. in 2011, about a sixth of the sales of the USB broadband adapters. But, Orr says, depending on what the carriers offer and promote, 2012 could be the year that mobile hotspots outsell USB adapters.
For carriers, notes Orr, mobile hotspots offer a couple of advantages compared with a user or group of users having multiple individually provisioned devices. First, they reduce the amount of device/network signaling traffic -- the activity that was responsible for a lot of the overload on AT&T's network in 2010 that, says Orr, conclude with an iPhone 4 patch to reduce signaling traffic. And they provide another source of revenue for carrier data products.
Prices for hotspots range from about $125 to slightly under $300, but the price can drop by 50% - 75% depending on the carrier's contract and other available discounts. The data contracts are usually the same as for a USB modem (however, because the data could be shared by more than one user, it's easier to meet or exceed your data limit).
Nearly all mobile hotspot products include their own internal battery. Typical battery runtimes are in the 4-5 hour range; some, like the Novatel 4620L, also offer a high-capacity battery, intended to provide a full workday's worth of juice. One exception is the upcoming Option XYFI, which doesn't have a battery, instead relying on a powered USB port, a battery pack or an AC adapter.
The Option XYFI has another interesting feature: It is unlocked, and supports a number of international frequency bands and protocols (including HSPA, 3G UMT, GPRS and EDGE), making it worth considering for international travelers. I found only one other unlocked mobile broadband hotspot: the Zoom Telephonic We3G, a 3G tri-band device available for about $120 - $200 that will work with AT&T and most other GSM cellular data services worldwide. Unfortunately, according to the company, it will be emphasizing other products instead -- meaning you can't count on the We3G being available much longer.
" Mobile hotspots can be a distinct advantage if you use devices that don't have USB ports (or only have one or two) or if you don't want to cable your phone directly to your device.
" A single hotspot can connect several devices simultaneously.
" Using a hotspot device instead of tethering your smartphone means you're not putting any additional strain on your phone's battery.
" You have to remember to bring it.
" It requires subscribing to a data plan separate from your smartphone's data plan.
" If you're using your hotspot to connect more than one device at a time, your total data usage can accumulate very quickly.
So which is right for you: smartphone tethering, a USB adapter or a mobile hotspot? What you choose depends on your "use case" -- how many devices and users you want to connect, whether the connecting device can stray away from the other devices or users, where you want to use it and so on.
If you're just going to need an occasional connection for a tablet or laptop when Wi-Fi is unavailable, then tethering your device to your smartphone may be the best way to go. If you find you need cell connectivity on a more regular basis, a USB adapter could work better for you.
"Look at what you want to do and how many devices do you want to connect," advises TabletPCTalk.com website manager Chris De Herrera. "If it's more than two, a [mobile hotspot] is probably less expensive. And then look at which carrier has the coverage you'll need, geographically."
"If it's just for you or a few people, using your smartphone may be fine, and only adds about $10-$20 per month more than you're already paying," agrees Craig J. Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, a technology advisory group in Ashland, Mass. "But for a workgroup, it's better not to monopolize the phone, especially since you can't do simultaneous voice and data on some carriers. As carriers roll out LTE service, this problem can go away -- but individual carriers might still not permit simultaneous voice and hotspotting. We'll have to wait and see what they offer and allow."
Whatever you do, watch the broadband money meter. Streaming a two-hour HD movie on the latest iPad, for example, will munch through most of 2GB. It's a good idea to use Wi-Fi whenever it's available. But when it's not, enjoy the productivity and convenience of mobile broadband.
The state of mobile broadband
For content-heavy apps like video, downloads and picture uploads, mobile broadband users want speed. And like wired broadband service, mobile broadband speeds keep getting faster.
"Carriers have gone from EV-DO Rev. A, which had a maximum download speed of 3.1Mbps, to HSPA, with 7.2Mbps, and then HSPA+, which went anywhere from 21Mbps to 28Mbps, and DC-HSPA+, which can access two carrier channels and deliver up to 48Mbps," says John Ross at Novatel Wireless. In addition, LTE and WiMax have potential download maximum speeds of around 300Mbps and 60Mbps, respectively.
Using mobile broadband requires service -- carrier towers in your area -- and devices that support the carrier's technology. And service rollouts are city by city. The main protocols in use in the U.S. currently are HSPA, HSPA+, LTE and EV-DO, plus some WiMax.
Don't be misled by ads proclaiming 3G and 4G. "3G and 4G is all marketing talk," says ABI's Jeff Orr; the terms don't correspond to specific offerings, specs or standards. "All the protocols will provide very adequate performance," says Orr. "You'll see faster speeds on the faster networks. But don't worry about using a lower-speed protocol -- getting service where you need it matters more."
Early adopters in areas where new networks provide HSPA+ or LTE service may get good performance, Orr notes, "because these coverage areas won't have as many users. It's like High-Occupancy-Vehicle lanes on a highway." Of course, as more users hop on, service may suffer.
As mobile carrier speeds and protocols evolve, users will need new devices or adapters with the appropriate chipsets to take advantage of them -- which requires vendors to offer the new tech. "Our first USB broadband adapter solution was EV-DO Rev. A," says Novatel's Ross. "The USB adapters we launched six to twelve months ago were LTE-class devices. In general, we now support the major air interfaces in the industry, which are currently dual-carrier HSPA+ and LTE."
But it's not just about vendor offerings, but also about what the carriers are prepared to support and offer to customers. For example, says Ross, "In some cases, like Verizon, vendors will support data-only devices first, and smartphones later."
In terms of service pricing, the carriers continue to tweak their offerings. Unlimited "all-you-can-eat" data service plans are going away or having rules added. Carriers like AT&T have discontinued unlimited fixed-price plans, and are implementing "throttling" on existing grandfathered accounts, meaning that after you've used a certain amount of data during the billing month, you may find your connection slowed down significantly. (T-Mobile's "overage-free" plans similarly throttle down.) And if you buy a new phone but want to hang onto a legacy plan, you now may have to pay full price for the phone.
Meanwhile, Verizon will be rolling out shared data plans, similar to shared call minutes, later this year, and AT&T has announced it's doing the same. Whether activation fees and other aspects of multi-device or multi-user accounting will make these plans a wash in terms of real savings remains to be seen.