We techies expect a lot from our smartphones, and for the most part, they don’t disappoint us. Today’s phones are amazing devices; we hold in the palms of our hands machines that have more processing power and memory than the high-end desktop systems of several years ago for which we paid thousands of dollars. A modern Android (or to a lesser extent, Apple or Windows) phone can allow you to get work done or provide entertainment in much the same way as a full-fledged computer — and make phone calls, too.
But there are still some tasks that can’t be done well or at all on a phone. I love the Swype text entry system on my Droid, and I can write a one or two paragraph email response or Facebook post with it with no problem. However, if I need to do real writing (such as this article), I don’t want to do it with one finger while squinting at a little 4 inch screen. So, as much as I wish I could leave my laptop at home when I travel, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
The problem with the laptop is that, unlike the phone, it doesn’t have a constant connection to the Internet. If I’m lucky, I can find a Wi-Fi network to connect it to — but that often means paying anywhere from $5 to over $20 USD per day to get online. Some hotels (albeit fewer and fewer) do offer free Internet service with your room, but it’s often slow, quirky, and not secure. You can get a laptop that has a built-in 3G card, but you don’t necessarily want to buy a new laptop for that capability. You could get a USB 3G or 4G modem that plugs into the laptop, but that means keeping up with another device, and the cost of the data plan for it may be high.
Increasingly, smartphone owners are sharing their phones’ Internet connections with their laptops — either by tethering the two together via USB or by setting up the phone as a wireless hotspot.
It’s been possible to turn your Internet-connected phone into a Wi-Fi access point for a long time; I wrote about how I turned my Windows Mobile phone into a WAP with WMWifiRouter. The latest crop of phones make it a lot easier but also more expensive.
The first carrier-approved wireless hotspot app was for Palm’s webOS, and Verizon introduced it with the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus in January 2010. Now, most of Verizon’s high end Android phones (Droid X, Incredible, Thunderbolt, Charge, etc.) come with an app called Mobile Hotspot. Android 2.2 (Froyo) supports Wi-Fi hotspot and tethering out of the box. A hotspot enables you to create a 3G or 4G (depending on the phone) wireless access point to which multiple devices (laptops, tablets) can connect. The number of devices supported varies by phone model.
Figure 1 below shows the icon for the Mobile Hotspot in the Apps list on an HTC Thunderbolt.
Many new Android phones include the Mobile Hotspot app
Note that, as with Verizon Navigator, VCast, and other paid services, you need to be subscribed to the Mobile Hotspot service to use this app. Verizon charges $20 per month for this, but it’s capped at 2 GB, even if Verizon is still honoring your preexisting unlimited data plan. If you’re on a tiered data plan (which includes everyone who got their first Verizon smartphones after July 7, 2011), the 2 GB is added to your data allowance. So, for example, if you have the 2 GB for $29 plan, you can use 2 GB on the phone itself and 2 GB for the Hotspot.
Sprint calls its version of the wireless access point the Hotspot. It was introduced with the HTC EVO for $30 per month, but usage is unlimited. AT&T introduced its own 4G mobile hotspot feature in February with the HTC Inspire, at the price of $25 per month for 2 GB of data.
Wi-Fi hotspot capability called Personal Hotspot finally came to the iPhone with the rollout of iOS 4.3, but Windows Phone 7 doesn’t have this feature yet.
Using the Mobile Hotspot is as easy as touching a checkbox to select it, as shown in Figure 2.
To turn on the Mobile Hotspot feature, simply touch the checkbox
The Settings page displays the SSID (Service Set Identifier) for the wireless access point and allows you to choose the type of security you want to use — None, WEP 128 bit, WPA (TKIP) or WPA (AES). At least in the case of the Thunderbolt, it defaults to the most secure encryption, WPA with AES. The access point creates a local network and assigns itself the private IP address of 192.168.1.1. It also acts as a DHCP server and assigns IP addresses to devices that connect to it. You can (and should) change the default SSID and password.
To connect your laptop to the hotspot, just turn on its wireless adapter and the hotspot’s SSID should show up in the list of available wireless networks. Enter the password, and you’re good to go. I got 10785 kbps downloads through the hotspot. Note that it’s a good idea to plug in the power cord on your phone when you’re using it as a mobile hotspot, as tethering runs down your battery quickly — especially with a phone like the Thunderbolt, which already has a very low battery life.
If you only need to connect one laptop or tablet to your phone at a time, tethering the two together with a USB cable is another option. The advantage is that this is more secure; with a Wi-Fi hotspot, your phone’s connection could be accessed by an unauthorized person if he/she guessed your password (which is very easy if you forget to change the default).
As with hotspot capability, support for tethering is built into Android 2.2 (Froyo), but that doesn’t mean the wireless carriers won’t charge you for the privilege of using it. And carriers may even tell you that those features aren’t supported on specific phone models, when there is no technological reason they won’t work.
Tethering with a USB cable is a little less convenient than creating a Wi-Fi hotspot, since you have to keep up with another accessory (the cable), and you can’t move the laptop as far away from the phone. Depending on the operating system on your laptop, you may need to do some special configuration on the laptop to get tethering to work. But it will get the job done in a pinch — if you’re working on a full-fledged laptop. However, the USB functionality on most tablets (and specifically on the iPad) is limited, which means you probably won’t be able to accomplish USB tethering on those devices.
Another, less well-known option in some cases is to use Bluetooth to share a phone’s Internet connection. Some of the wireless tethering apps give you the option of using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and you may have to root your phone to do it. That brings us to the controversial issue of “going rogue” or tethering your phone and laptop without the wireless carrier’s blessing.
Some folks aren’t content to pay $20, $25, or $30 per month to connect their laptops to the Internet via their phones. They argue that they pay for a certain amount of data and should be able to use it any way they want. It is possible to tap into your phone’s 3G or 4G connection without paying — but it may violate the terms of your contract. If that doesn’t deter you, as with almost everything else, there’s an app for that. In fact, there are several.
One such rogue app is called Android Wifi Tether. The catch is that to install it (or most others like it), you have to root/jailbreak your phone. The rooting process is different, depending on your phone model, and doing so may void your warranty. Furthermore, you may not find these apps in the Android Market, as some carriers are blocking them. Getting them onto your phone requires “side-loading,” which means downloading them from the developer’s web site. Some groups have protested the app blocking, claiming it’s a violation of the “open access” agreement that the carriers made when they lobbied to get the use of the 700 MHz spectrum.
If you don’t mind being tethered to the phone via USB, you can use an app like Easy Tether that does not require root access. There is a “Lite” version that’s available free through the Android Market. The lite version blocks HTTPS, instant messaging, and game console tethering. The full (paid) version costs $9.99 and lets you tether a PS3, Xbox 360, or Wii using Internet Connection Sharing. PdaNet is another USB tethering app that works without root access. It’s a bit more expensive ($23.95) for the full version. The free trial version is fully functional during the trial period, and then afterward blocks HTTPS sites.
Note that AT&T has said they will charge you for the service if they detect that you’re tethering without paying. It’s also been reported that Verizon will remotely remove the tethering apps from your phone. Even worse, your wireless carrier could also legally terminate your contract if you’re caught engaging in unauthorized Wi-Fi or USB tethering. If you currently have Verizon’s unlimited data plan, a contract cancellation would mean you lose that, so going rogue may be like playing with fire.
Today’s smartphones have some amazing capabilities, and the option to share their 3G or 4G Internet connections with other devices — in some cases, a whole roomful of other devices — is one of the most useful. Unfortunately, U.S. wireless carriers don’t let you do this for free. They charge pretty hefty fees for the feature. There are ways around it, but they constitute a breach of your contract and may require rooting your phone, which carries the possibility of “bricking” it and rendering it completely unusable.
However, if you travel a lot and find yourself paying the daily rates charged by hotels and airports for an Internet connection, the wireless carriers’ monthly rates may start to look very attractive. It’s up to you to assess how much sense activating the hotspot/tethering feature makes for you.