Ask LH: Should I Ditch My Home Internet And Just Use My Phone’s Mobile Hot Spot?

Ask LH: Should I Ditch My Home Internet And Just Use My Phone’s Mobile Hot Spot?

Dear Lifehacker, Is there a way to use my phone to provide wifi to my laptop and smart tv so we can say goodbye to our home broadband? I’m flabbergasted at the cost of internet! Thanks, Lady Luddite

Dear LL, Nobody likes paying a ton of money for internet service (especially if you’re spending a small fortune each month for crappy speeds, like a spotty DSL connection). And while a crafty idea might pop into your head from time to time about how you can reduce or eliminate your monthly fee – including asking your neighbour to “borrow” their wifi password or setting up a tent outside of your local coffee shop – most people are more likely to sigh and cough up the cash than to come up with a super-creative connection.

I, too, remain flabbergasted at the cost of internet service, especially when I think about how all my lucky friends with fibre optic internet are probably paying only $20 or so more than me, but enjoying more than six times the download speed and 50 times the upload speed that I’m getting. Sigh.

On to your problem. Yes, you can absolutely use your smartphone to provide an internet connection to your laptop. Depending on your device and your provider, it shouldn’t be that difficult to set up wifi tethering (or a “personal hotspot,” as it’s also called) on an Android or iOS phone. Connect a device to your phone’s wireless network, and it can use your phone’s cellular connection to get online.

Easy, right? Yes, but I still wouldn’t do as a long-term solution to save a little money for a variety of reasons.

First off, tethering is probably going to be a lot slower than even a reasonably cheap internet plan and wifi setup. You’re dealing with a wireless connection emanating from your smartphone, after all. Not only will a good router blast out a more powerful signal farther, but even a cheaper internet plan from your ISP is going to be ultimately faster than your phone’s data plan.

For example, I just pulled out the Speedtest app on my iPad, tethered it to my iPhone’s ISP connection (three bars of coverage in my room), and ran Speedtest on my iPad, measuring 16.8 Mbps for downloads and 3.38 Mbps for uploads. I then walked down the hall and soon ran out of coverage, flipped to the wifi connection from my room’s router, and enjoyed considerably faster speeds. It’s apples and oranges, since I pay for a 150 Mbps plan, but even if I went cheap, I’d still be able to max out my speeds across a much greater distance.

While you’ll still be able to watch YouTube and Netflix on a 16.8 Mbps connection, your larger downloads are going to crawl by. Good luck if you ever have to deal with a gigabyte (or multi-gigabyte) operating system update. And if you’re trying to upload a connected phone’s photos to a cloud service, like Google Photos, you’re going to be there all day – at least, with my connection. (Here’s hoping you’re closer to one of your mobile ISP’s towers than I am.)

This all assumes that your wireless carrier doesn’t throttle your mobile hotspot speeds, by the way. Some “unlimited” plans give you decent speeds, but the company will inhibit your connection once you blow past a certain amount of data.

Considering just an hour of Netflix eats up around 0.7 gigabytes of data when you’re watching at medium quality, it’s certainly plausible that you’ll blow past your carrier’s data limits and find your speeds slashed if you try to use your phone’s data plan as your house’s primary internet connection. Trying to browse the web, load pages, or watch video at less than 1 Mbps isn’t going to be very fun. And, to be honest, I have no idea how many devices you can even connect to a typical smartphone’s hotspot at once; you might run into issues there, too.

My advice? Keep the speedy internet and find a creative way to shrink down your phone bill. Get a low-cost plan that comes with barely any data, but unlimited talking and texting. You can always grab an app that gives you offline access to directions if you need some navigational help when driving, for example. And maybe use Facebook less when you’re running around town. Things like that. You have options!

Cheers Lifehacker


  • This is an american article that doesn’t translate 100% to Australia’s circumstances.

    Our fixed line internet speeds are a lot slower (and more expensive) than theirs. And our mobile internet is a lot faster than theirs. So in Australia it’s a much more viable option, especially with these new unlimited plans (though Telstra’s $199 plan certainly isn’t cheap).

    • One of the problems thinking mobile will do the job is the issues if you’re wrong. Most mobile plans are pretty limited in bandwidth, and once you go past that limit, it gets expensive, fast. Most mobile plans come with about 20 Gb as a maximum, which isn’t hard to go through at home.

      Contention is also still an issue, and will always be an issue. Mobile is a limited resource, and it doesn’t take many people to crowd the spectrum. That wont change without a major changes I just cant see happening – namely, a LOT more mobile towers.

      If someone is in a peak location, with not too many others in the area using wireless, and their own data needs very low, then theres no reason it cant work. But statistically, something like 96% of all data is transmitted by fixed line, and there are reasons for that.

      Mobile use is the fast food of internet – handy for that quick hit, but you don’t want to base your whole diet on it.

      • @grunt Seems like there are a few errors in your reply.

        I think you mixed up “bandwidth” with “data” and “contention” with “bandwidth”. Obviously if you want to replace fixed with cellular, you would pay to get a higher plan (or get mobile broadband sim). Note sure where you are getting “20 GB as a maximum” from, there are a lot of plans higher than that.

        I agree mobile is a limited resource, just like fixed. Do you have have data on the number of people required to crown the spectrum? There have been a few data free days on some networks that showed the network can handle well with high demand (granted not capable of moving everyone to wireless). 5G and more 4G channels along with better backbones would reduce the need for a lot more towers.

        Not sure your analogy holds, if you have bad fixed internet or don’t use huge amounts of data mobile if great. You could potentially save money by removing fixed and beefing up a mobile plan. I hope data limits just keep increasing

        • Welcome back form moderation hell 🙂

          Might be right with terminology, I do get it wrong on occasion. This is my sisters field, not mine. Bandwidth has been used to describe your data limit in the past though, which is why I default to it. Old habits. Either way, its mostly that there are limitations that aren’t so straightforward to get around.

          I’ll stick with that 20 Gb limit though, a look through the major players shows that’s a fair average to use. If you want to bump it up to 30 Gb though, it doesn’t change the issue.

          What I’m saying is that after a point, it gets expensive. Telstra charges $10 a Gb for example, so just 5 Gb more than your limit and that’s another $50, thank you very much. Whether that point is 20 Gb, 30 Gb, or 50 Gb, its still a point people go past. Most people underestimate their use, or don’t want to mess with add-ons to their mobile plans, or something that ends up limiting them.

          Then you have most houses covering multiple people. Even with just two people that cost as each needs to look after their own needs first gets expensive. Very soon its cheaper to have a fixed line connection where you’re spreading the cost.

          If it was just ME, not a problem. I could find a plan that would be cheaper than the combined cost of mobile and fixed line, but its not. And it wont be for most people. But I own my place, and have others that need net access as well, usually when I’m not there.

          Not saying it cant be done, if your use is low you can do it, no problem. But you need an ideal situation for it to work, and that doesn’t happen as often as people think. And that’s before you get to the issues that would happen if everyone just used mobile connections.

    • You also need to keep in mind that Australian telcos can be…difficult when it comes to tethering or using portable hotspots. If you purchase a phone through them (either outright or on a plan), they usually come loaded with bloatware and some predetermined settings that you can’t change. One of those settings is often to disable the option to tether or set up a hotspot. Why? Because they want to charge you for another sim card to put in the device that needs the internet, of course. Never mind the fact that many of those devices are wifi only without LTE, that’s a minor technicality.

      This isn’t a problem if you purchase unlocked phones outright through sources not linked to the telcos though.

  • The only internet I can get at my house is ~7mbit DSL, which has ongoing faults (multi-pair cable was damaged by NBN, there are no good pairs left, and they haven’t fixed it yet). Tethering to my phone is twice as fast download (and 6-8 times faster upload!). The only problem is download quotas – netflix, OS updates, kids watching youtube all the time. Just not workable under Australian pricing plans. Since I can’t get NBN (and will be at most 25mbit when/if it arrives), I’m totally stuck.

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