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Hotspots: A comprehensive guide

Learn the ins and outs of using mobile hotspots, different hotspot data plans and how to get the best deal on your plan

friends using laptop in a park

Should you invest in a dedicated hotspot? Here's a guide to the pros and cons.

As the internet becomes a bigger part of personal and professional life, consistent and reliable network connections are becoming essential for more people, and hotspots can help us stay connected.

What is a hotspot?

A hotspot is a location where people can access the internet wirelessly with a mobile device. Most hotspots work by using cellular data to connect devices to the internet via Wi-Fi (also sometimes spelled wifi or wi-fi). This enables users to quickly connect any of their mobile devices to the internet through a single access point. Hotspots offer a variety of benefits for users and are ideal for anyone who needs to regularly access the internet while on the go.

Benefits of a hotspot

There are several benefits to using a hotspot instead of public Wi-Fi:

  • Ease of access: One of the biggest advantages is that hotspots enable you to create an impromptu internet connection with relatively little time and effort. Most types of hotspots can be set up with a few simple steps, and don't require any kind of Wi-Fi connection.
  • Reliability: Because hotspots rely on cellular networks, they can provide you with a reliable connection in a wider range of locations than Wi-Fi. With the development of 5G technology, many hotspots can now deliver faster speeds and lower latency than they could while using less advanced networks.
  • Security: Because hotspots are essentially private networks, they can provide a more secure connection than public Wi-Fi, which can help significantly reduce the risk of network security threats like malware and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Although these benefits apply to all hotspots, some may fit your needs better than others depending on the carrier.

Do I need a dedicated hotspot or can I just use my phone?

There are several different types of hotspots and they each have their own benefits.

Cell phone hotspots

Many modern smartphones come with built-in hotspot features that can be turned on easily in the "settings" menu. Also known as "phone tethering," setting up a cell phone hotspot enables you to share your phone's cellular data with other devices, such as laptops and tablets.

How to turn your phone hotspot on

While using your cell phone as a mobile hotspot is generally simple, the exact steps you'll need to take can vary depending on the operating system it uses:

  • iOS: To set up a hotspot on an iOS device, go to the "cellular" section of the settings menu and switch the "personal hotspot" slider to on. Then, tap the "allow others to join" slider if you'd like to allow other devices to connect.
  • Android: To set up a hotspot on an Android device, first go to the settings menu and hold down the "mobile hotspot" icon to turn it on. Then, view the Wi-Fi options in your device's settings, and find your phone's hotspot name.

To utilize these features on your phone, you'll need to make sure your cellular data plan supports personal hotspots. If you can't find a "personal hotspot" option in your phone's settings menu, you should reach out to your carrier to discuss your plan and learn more about mobile hotspot features and apps.

Dedicated mobile hotspots

Unlike cell phone hotspots, dedicated mobile hotspots work by using entirely separate devices to connect to the internet. These internet devices, often referred to as simply "mobile hotspots", function as wireless routers that connect to local cellular towers to provide Wi-Fi-enabled devices with broadband.

Mobile hotspot devices can often deliver a better performance than phone tethering. If you don't wish to sign a contract for a hotspot plan, but want a mobile hotspot, you can also simply purchase a prepaid mobile hotspot device.

There are a variety of different internet devices and mobile hotspot plans — each with its unique features and associated costs.

5G hotspots

As their name implies, 5G hotspots are designed to work over 5G cellular networks. Compared to 3G and 4G LTE, these 5G networks can offer significantly faster speeds and lower latency.

To set up a 5G hotspot, you'll need a 5G capable phone with a data plan, or a specialized mobile hotspot device that can support 5G speeds. 5G mobile hotspot devices also offer longer battery life than smartphones and can connect more devices to the internet at once.

Travel hotspots

Also known as a travel router, a travel hotspot can enable you to get Wi-Fi anywhere by using a public internet connection to create a small private Wi-Fi network for your devices. Using one of these private networks instead of a public connection can help you better protect your assets and personal information by securing your phone and other mobile devices against cyber threats while traveling.

Similar to other types of hotspots, travel hotspots are only as effective as the network they are connected to. As a result, the level of speed and bandwidth they provide can vary depending on where you are.

In addition, different international data agreements can account for international roaming. International roaming occurs when consumers travel overseas and use their phones on a foreign or "visited" network. Using a hotspot overseas without an international data agreement can lead to additional charges from your carrier. If you frequently travel out of the country, selecting a plan with international roaming data via a hotspot can help you stay connected abroad while avoiding costly overages.

What internet plans are available for hotspots?

There are a wide variety of different internet plans that can support hotspots. These include cell phone plans with hotspot data coverage or separate data plans offered for dedicated mobile internet devices. The optimal plan for you may vary depending on your unique needs for internet access, so you should consider other variables as well that may impact your decision.

Verizon hotspot plan options

Verizon, in particular, offers a variety of different mobile plans that can support hotspot use, including data-only plans and bundles that combine hotspot data with other services:

  • Unlimited hotspot plansUnlimited hotspot data plans include access to an unlimited amount of streaming quality mobile hotspot data, as well as a pre-set amount of premium data each month. Verizon has a variety of tiers and options available — all of which you can choose from to cater to your budget and data needs. Unlimited hotspot plans are available with both 4G LTE and 5G networks, and give you the option to bring your own device or purchase a new one when you sign up. These plans are ideal for consumers who use a lot of data and only want to pay for hotspot services.
  • Prepaid data-only plansPrepaid data-only plans allow you to purchase a set amount of hotspot data for your smartphone or internet device each month. This can help you limit your data consumption and avoid paying for data you don't need. All plans offer HD-quality streaming, and some include access to 5G networks. Available data amounts for prepaid plans range from 5 GB to 150 GB per month. Larger volume plans are ideal for supporting activities such as online gaming and video streaming, while smaller plans may be adequate for simpler tasks like emailing and posting on social media.
  • Unlimited mobile plans: In addition to data-only plans, Verizon also offers unlimited mobile plans that include hotspot data as well. These plans will provide you with unlimited hotspot data and access to Verizon's 5G mobile network. Unlimited plans are ideal for consumers that want both cellular and hotspot data, as bundling can help reduce the cost of both services. Several plans also include home internet services at a significantly discounted price.
  • Prepaid mobile plansPrepaid mobile plans may also include hotspot data. These plans include a set amount of cellular and hotspot data for each month, which can vary depending on your selected package. They are ideal for consumers on a budget, as they can provide access to cellular and hotspot data services at a discounted rate.
  • Connected device plansConnected device plans allow you to purchase data for devices such as smartwatches, laptops, tablets, and in-car computer systems. This enables you to access the internet and set up hotspots directly from these devices, rather than relying on a single phone or internet device to connect them all. These plans are ideal for consumers who frequently use a variety of computing devices while on the go.

While each type of plan has its advantages, not all plans will fit every consumer. By asking your carrier beforehand, you can ensure your data needs are met and the plan you select fits your budget.

Standard plans vs. prepaid plans

There are several notable differences between standard and prepaid hotspot plans, and understanding these differences can help you determine which type of plan is best for you. With most standard plans, you'll sign a contract with your carrier agreeing to pay a monthly fee for access to a cellular data network, which can vary depending on your plan's data cap and the type of network you have (though some hotspot plan providers, like Verizon, don't have contracts). With a prepaid hotspot plan, you can purchase a predetermined amount of data from your carrier without signing a contract.

Even though you can use data-demanding activities — like video streaming and downloading files — for both types of plans, you may notice a difference in image clarity with a prepaid plan. As such, your choice between prepaid and standard plans may depend on your preference and the frequency of your data usage.

Things to consider

With the amount of data plan options available to modern consumers, it can be difficult to be sure that you're making the best choice. However, you can narrow down your search by studying and comparing the individual features of each option. There are several things to consider when looking for a hotspot-friendly internet plan.

The amount of data you get in the carrier's hotspot plan: Available data is one of the most important elements of any hotspot plan. Most carriers offer a variety of hotspot plans designed to accommodate different levels of data use.

These can range from prepaid plans that allow you to purchase a set amount of data with no contract to unlimited plans that you can pay for monthly. The amount of data you'll likely need depends on the frequency you use your hotspot, and the activities you usually perform.

The size of the carrier's cellular network: In most cases, creating and supporting a hotspot requires a strong cellular network connection. Regardless of your data plan, a weak network connection can significantly compromise the speed and bandwidth of your devices.

This is an especially important consideration if you travel frequently or live in an area with inconsistent coverage, as connection strength can vary wildly depending on your location. Opting for a carrier with a more extensive 4G LTE or 5G network can help ensure you'll have a strong enough connection to support hotspot use in more places.

4G vs. 5G: The type of wireless network your cellular plan uses can have a significant impact on your hotspot experience. 5G hotspots can also deliver better speeds and connect more devices to the internet at once than 4G hotspots. Currently, 5G infrastructure is not as extensive as 4G, so it may not be ready yet in your area. 5G devices will switch to the available network, though, as you travel from area to area for a more seamless experience. As 5G continues to become more prevalent and important for future internet usage, investing in a 5G phone will be vital to maintain a reliable and fast connection.

Data caps: A data cap is a monthly data usage limit allotted by your cellular provider. If you exceed your hotspot plan's data cap before the end of a month, your service may be affected significantly until the next billing cycle begins, which can severely limit the functionality of your hotspot.

Your set data cap can vary depending on your specific plan, although most major carriers allow you to check your data usage online and add more data during the month if you need it. Many carriers offer 4G and 5G unlimited hotspot plans for those who utilize hotspots frequently and don't want to worry about exceeding their cap.

Primary use: When deciding on a hotspot plan, it's critical to consider if your hotspot will be your primary source of internet access. While hotspots can serve as a viable alternative to home internet in some cases, replacing your router with a hotspot will likely compromise the speed and reliability of your connection. This is because hotspot plans rely on cellular data, while home internet relies on Wi-Fi data. Wi-Fi data can only be used if your devices are within range of your router.

Cellular data can be used anywhere that you have a phone signal but is usually limited by a monthly data cap defined in your plan. Wi-Fi data and cellular data have very distinct benefits and disadvantages. In many cases, consumers can benefit from having both home internet and a hotspot plan, as this allows them to enjoy unlimited internet access while at home and stay connected while on the go.

Making these considerations in your research can help you identify a hotspot plan that addresses your needs while avoiding overpaying for unnecessary data that you won't use.

How to get a better deal

In addition to customizable plans, many carriers also offer customers other ways to save on their data costs and add functionality to their hotspots. There are several notable features and potential discounts that you should be aware of while searching for a hotspot plan:

  • Bundling discounts: Most major carriers offer a variety of bundle plans that allow you to combine your mobile, hotspot and home internet services into a single package. These plans can be customized according to your data usage needs, and many bundle offerings include unlimited mobile and hotspot data along with discounted home internet.
  • Add-ons: In addition to bundle packages, many carriers offer add-ons that allow you to attach a variety of features and services to your plan at a discounted rate. These can include utilities like cloud storage, mobile device protection, and paid entertainment services like Disney Plus and Apple Music.
  • Bring your own deviceBring your own device plans allow you to purchase cellular and data services for devices you already own, rather than buying a new device when you sign up if you have a tighter budget.

Along with carefully researching different plans and networks, discussing these options with your carrier before agreeing to a plan can potentially help you reduce the cost of your hotspot without compromising your service quality.

Hotspots and video streaming

With the evolution of cellular networks, hotspots today can support a wide range of online activity, including entertainment applications like music and video streaming. However, the streaming capacity of your hotspot can depend on several important factors, including the strength of your connection and the type of data plan you have.

4G LTE hotspots can generally support HD video streaming, but will not likely deliver broadcast-quality image and sound. 5G connections can usually provide better sound and image clarity. It's also important to consider the type of data plan, as exceeding your monthly limit can significantly compromise your ability to stream.

Hotspots and gaming

In many cases, mobile hotspots are also able to support online gaming. However, there are several things to keep in mind regarding gaming on your hotspot, including the type of network you have. Generally, full-performance gaming requires internet speeds of 3 Mbps for downloads and 1-2 Mbps for uploads. A slow or inconsistent connection could interfere with your experience by causing lag and latency issues.

Mobile gaming generally uses less data than video streaming. It can be supported by either 4 LTE or 5G networks, although faster connections can deliver significantly better performance when gaming online or downloading games and updates. People who frequently use their hotspots for gaming may benefit from a higher-volume or unlimited data plan with a 5G connection.

Staying safe while using a hotspot

While mobile hotspots are significantly safer than public Wi-Fi networks, there are still several notable security considerations to keep in mind.

  • Password strength: Because your hotspot essentially serves as your own private Wi-Fi network, it is up to you to set a password. Setting a strong password can reduce the risk of threats like rainbow table attacks and brute force cracking. Ideally, the password you select should be as long and random as possible, and should not include any complete words from the dictionary.
  • Port filtering: Some types of hotspots include a feature called port filtering. This enables you to prevent certain ports and services from accessing your network at your discretion. Filtering out any unnecessary ports will significantly limit the number of paths that hackers can take in and out of your network. Although not all devices allow port-filtering actions, all devices with hotspot capabilities can allow port-filtering. To see if your device has port-filtering capabilities, check your device's advanced settings.
  • SSID: Randomizing your SSID, or the display name of your hotspot's wireless network is another way to protect yourself from hackers. Similar to your password, your SSID should be as long and random as possible, and should not contain any dictionary words. Otherwise, hackers can infiltrate your network.
  • VPN: Using a virtual private network (VPN) can protect your privacy and allow you to access a wider range of content while using your hotspot. Sharing your VPN connection over your Wi-Fi hotspot will extend the privacy benefits to all of your devices. Some types of mobile device plans even include VPNs that you can use in public; opting for one of these plans would allow you to be protected as soon as you begin using your hotspot.

Taking these steps will help you protect yourself and your personal information while continually enjoying the convenience and benefits of your personal hotspot.

Additional information about hotspots

Hotspots can be hugely beneficial tools, but there are many different options to choose from, and it's important to know what you're looking for. Fortunately, Verizon offers a variety of prepaid, standard and unlimited mobile hotspot data plans that you can customize to fit your needs.

Resources

Mobile Security Index 2020 Report: This report discusses the prevalence and frequency of cyber attacks among public networks and private hotspots alike.


Reviewed By: Verizon Editorial Team
Last Reviewed: 7.20.2023
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