Everything you need to know about mobile tethering
A simple guide for sharing your phone's Internet connection with other devices.
For as many cafes, shopping centres and fast-food restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi these days, hotspot-hopping isn't always the best way of getting online when you're out and about. Public Wi-Fi networks tend to be slow and unstable, and you often need to sacrifice your email inbox to a mountain of spam in order to make use of the free connection.
One alternative is buying a wireless modem and lugging it around with you when you're on the go, but that can be awkward and requires you to sign up for a separate data plan or remember to keep your modem topped up with pre-paid credit before you hit the streets. Rather than deal with all that, though, there is an easier solution: mobile tethering. All you need is a smartphone, a mobile plan with included data and this guide.
What is mobile tethering?
Mobile tethering is the process of sharing your smartphone's Internet connection with other devices like a laptop or tablet. Also known as a mobile hotspot, mobile tethering lets you leverage your phone's 3G or 4G connection for online tasks your phone can't perform on its own.
For example, you could tether your phone to your laptop and connect to your work's VPN so you can get a head start on the day's business while on the train into the office. You could also tether your phone to your Nintendo Switch video game console and play online games while hanging out with your friends in the park or tether to your iPad and simply watch Netflix on a bigger screen.
How does mobile tethering work?
Mobile tethering supports a number of different connection methods, including Wi-Fi, USB and Bluetooth. For Wi-Fi tethering, your phone acts like a wireless modem-router, and you can connect other devices to it much like you would when connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. On your phone, you can set a name and password for the Wi-Fi network, which you then enter on the device you want to connect. Once connected, you simply browse the web as normal. Wi-Fi tethering allows for multiple devices to share your phone's Internet connection at the same time, too, with different phones supporting a different limit depending on their hardware.
Bluetooth tethering works much the same way but over a wireless Bluetooth connection instead, though you can only share your phone's Internet with a single device at a time. The same goes for USB tethering, which shares your phone's Internet connection with one device over the standard USB cable you likely received when you bought the phone. For iPhone users, you'll also need to install iTunes on the computer you want to tether with over USB before it will work.
What limitations are there when using mobile tethering?
There are a few things to be mindful of when using mobile tethering. For one, if you set your phone up as a Wi-Fi hotspot, you won't be able to connect your phone to any other Wi-Fi networks at the same time.
There's also the matter of data use. Because you can have multiple devices all sharing the same mobile Internet connection, it can be easy to chew through far more data than you would on your phone alone. For instance, when browsing the web on mobile, you'll typically see mobile versions of websites optimised for smaller screens, and these generally use less data than full-blown web pages do on a laptop or larger device. Similarly, mobile apps are typically designed to minimise data usage, while desktop programs often aren't.
As such, you'll want to keep a close eye on your mobile plan's data usage when tethering. Streaming Netflix on your phone might only use 300MB an hour depending on your phone's resolution, while watching on your HD laptop could chew through as much as 3GB per hour.
Battery use is another concern to be aware of. Tethering can burn through your phone's battery if you're not careful, so make sure to turn tethering off when you're not using it to avoid the frustration of a dead phone when you're on the go.