You already know that your smartphone can use mobile data to access the internet. But did you know that it can also act as a portable WiFi hotspot? Welcome to the world of mobile tethering!

You read that right! If your device allows it, it may be be possible to turn your smartphone into a portable WiFi hotspot. 

Most modern smartphones can be used to make a mobile WiFi connection, or “mobile tether”.

There are a lot of reasons to do this. Maybe you’re working from a cafe and the free WiFi is a bit spotty. Or maybe you’re waiting at the airport for a flight and don’t want to pay a premium for a connection. In these cases, mobile tethering may be the solution you’re looking for.

What is mobile tethering?

At its most basic, mobile tethering - also called “mobile hotspotting” - is the process of connecting a device to the internet via your smartphone’s data connection. Most modern smartphones have a feature buried in settings that lets them act as a mobile hotspot.

Just like a dedicated mobile data dongle, your smartphone connects to a mobile data network, then makes this network available using WiFi frequencies. Essentially your smartphone becomes a mobile WiFi modem and router in one. The result? You can access the internet without needing any extra equipment!

Your smartphone can help you connect to mobile data networks, same as a mobile data dongle.

It’s not just WiFi - some smartphones can share this connection through USB cables and Bluetooth connections as well. These aren’t always as popular, because they can only connect to one device at time, whereas the WiFi option lets your phone support multiple devices at the same time.

Can I connect?

Most modern smartphones in Australia have the option to set up a mobile hotspot built in. Nearly all major smartphone developers support this, as do the big-name operating systems - such as Android, BlackBerry, iOS, webOS and Windows Phone.

Your ability to browse online is also impacted by your connection, and how much data you have on your mobile plan. If you are in a part of the world with a slow or spotty connection, a mobile hotspot may not perform well. Additionally, if you don’t have data, you can’t connect.

How do I enable mobile tethering?

First, ensure that your smartphone is connected to a mobile data network. You can usually see this in the status bar at the top - it will display the connection type (2G, 3G, or 4G) and the strength of the connection.

Second, go into the Settings and look for headings like “Wireless and Networks” or “Cellular”. In under this heading, you want to look for an option labelled “Tethering” or “Portable hotspot”. When you find this setting, turn it on.

Third, select the “Configure WiFi hotpsot” option. This will let you name the Wifi connection, choose a security level, and choose to set a password on it. It is highly recommended that you choose to set a security option (WPA2 PSK is the minimum we recommend) and set a password. This option will encrypt the data transmitted between your smartphone and any connected device, and will keep other people from “piggybacking” your mobile data.

Fourth, go to the WiFi settings on the device you wish to tether to your smartphone’s WiFi hotspot. Select the WiFi connection you named in the setup step above, and enter the password you selected.

Finally, browse away! When the setup is complete you will be free to browse using your smartphone’s data connection!

You can potentially connect any WiFi enabled device to the internet using a smartphone as a mobile tether.

Potentially, you could connect any WiFi-enabled device to the internet via your smartphone using this method - laptops, tablets, even other smartphones.

But there are still some considerations to be aware of when considering using your smartphone as a WiFi hotspot.

The do’s and dont’s of mobile tethering

Data

Just because your smartphone is now acting as a hotspot doesn't mean that you can treat it like it has unlimited data. Data limits of mobiles are typically lower than for broadband connections, and the costs are higher, so keep these factors in mind.

Do - pause big downloads and limit your internet use to activities that are light on bandwidth.

Don’t - use your mobile hotspot to download large files or stream movies for hours.

Power

WiFi tethering chews through power at an incredible rate, and your smartphone battery can expire quickly when under heavy strain.

Do - charge your device using the correct cable while using it as a mobile WiFi hotspot.

Don’t - expect your device to last long without a charge.

Security

While you may think of it as your own personal connection, you still need to protect your private information when using mobile tethering.

Do - use the secure connection option and enable a password when using mobile tethering.

Don’t - leave your mobile hotspot connection open and unsecured.

Connection

Your hotspot tether relies on mobile data to operate. No connection, no internet.

Do - make sure your handset has a decent connection with the mobile network.

Don’t - set up your WiFi connection in a place with bad reception (it won’t work).

Roaming

When travelling overseas, data you use on an Australian SIM may cost you a lot.

Do - switch to a local or low-cost data SIM

Don’t - use Australian data when roaming

Download speeds

Your mobile data may be at a premium, and your connection may be slower than a wired connection.

Do - pause or cancel app updates and hold off on downloading large files while tethering.

Don’t - rely on mobile WiFi to be as fast or as stable as a wired connection.

Mobile tethering has its place

For many of us, being able to access the internet when and where we want is an amazing perk of modern civilisation. But the kind of activities we do online are shaped to a large degree by the kind of connection we have available.

Mobile tethering acts as a connection option when other options are not available or effective. These portable hotspot options can get us out of tight spots - getting that report in before the deadline, or looking up flight times on the go. But because of the limited nature of the devices involved - and the costs they can incur - mobile tethering should be treated as a backup option, and not be relied on as the primary connection option.

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