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!