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Everything You Need to Know About Mobile Hotspots

More than ever, being online is part of being alive. And when insecure public Wi-Fi has slowed down your lifestyle too much, or when you want to get online while out and about with a device that doesn’t have its own wireless connection, it’s time to create your own personal online world. The easiest way to do that is to get a mobile hotspot. It’s ready for everything from binge-watching on a train to an impromptu online gaming fest at the beach.

Best AT&T Hotspots

AT&T has two mobile hotspot data plans to choose from. The $50 DataConnect 25G provides 25GB of top speed data while the $75 DataConnect 40GB has (you guessed it) 40GB of high-speed hotspot data available. After you hit your limit, extra data costs $10 for every 2GB. Both allow you unlimited use of AT&T’s network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

  • Connectivity: up to 5G and 5G+
  • Number of devices: up to 32 devices
  • Storage: 1GB
  • Battery: 5,040mAh

The Netgear Nighthawk M6 Pro is the company’s newest high-powered hotspot that supports 5G and 4G (when 5G isn’t available). It’s approximately 20-percent faster than its predecessor, the M5 Pro, but comes with mostly the same abilities. It can connect with up to 32 devices and the Nighthawk 5G’s 5,040mAh battery can go for 9 hours of use. In other words, it’s a sprinter that can go the distance but is expensive.

  • Connectivity: up to 5G
  • Number of devices: up to 20 devices
  • Storage: 1GB
  • Battery: 5,000mAh

The Franklin A50 is a more affordable alternative than the Netgear Nighthawk M6 Pro. It still supports 5G and very well capable of connecting multiple devices — up to 20 devices — at the same time. It has a pretty intuitive display and comes a 5,000mAh rechargeable battery that should last you most of the day.

Best T-Mobile Hotspots

T-Mobile’s mobile hotspot plans mirror its mobile phone hotspot accounts, with Essentials at 3G speeds, Magenta with 5GB of 4G/5G hotspot data and Magenta Max with unlimited 4G/5G hotspot usage.

  • Connectivity: up to 5G
  • Number of devices: up to 32 devices
  • Storage: 1GB
  • Battery: 5,050mAh

The Inseego MiFi X Pro 5G is pretty high-powered mobile spot for T-Mobile that supports 5G and Wi-Fi 6. It has a 2.4-inch touch display with an intuitive interface and a built-in 5,050mAH rechargable battery that should last you at least several hours of connectivity. It can connect up to 32 devices

  • Connectivity: up to 4G
  • Number of devices: up to 15 devices
  • Storage: 256GB
  • Battery: 3,000mAh

The Franklin T10 is a great budget-friendly hotspot for T-Mobile subscribers. It has a pretty easy-to-navigate touchscreen display, a solid battery life (thanks to a built-in 3,000mAh battery ), and it’s capable of connecting up to 15 devices at once. The caveat is that it’s not as powerful or fast as other more expensive options. It also maxes out at 4G connectivity and support for Wi-Fi 5.

Best Verizon Hotspots

The network’s Unlimited plan costs $75 a month (discounted to $20 if you have a Verizon mobile phone); it comes with 15GB of 4G/5G hotspot data. The Unlimited Plus plan costs $85 ($35 a month if you have a Verizon phone account) and includes 30GB of 4G/5G data as well as the bonus of 50GB of 5G Ultra-Wide Band data. After that, the speed of 5G UW data drops to 3Mbps and the 4G data slows to 600Kbps.

  • Connectivity: up to 5G
  • Number of devices: up to 30 devices
  • Storage: 512GB
  • Battery: 3,500mAh

The Inseego MiFi M2100 5G UW is an advanced mobile hotspot with access to the high-speed ultra-wide band portion of Verizon’s 5G network. It has a 3,500mAh battery which gives it enough juice to run most of the day. It can connect with up to 30 devices. Obviously, the main tradeoff is that it’s one pretty darn pricey.

  • Connectivity: up to 4G
  • Number of devices: up to 10 devices
  • Storage: 512GB
  • Battery: 3,000mAh

The Orbic Speed Mobile Hotspot does a lot for a little. At $80, it is among the least expensive hotspots and able to fit into a pocket. It’s able to connect up to 10 devices and has a decent 3,000mAh battery that can give you up to 12 hours of continuous use. Unfortunately, the hotspot lacks the ability to tap into the carrier’s emerging 5G network.

Best Unlocked Hotspots

There is another way that can avoid buying the hardware from a carrier, but there’s a potential gotcha. If you buy an unlocked hotspot and get a SIM card from the carrier of your choice, you can hotspot anywhere. This method might require a call to the network’s support people to get it all to work, but it is a viable option that I’ve used. Here are three of my current favorites.

  • Connectivity: up to 4G
  • Number of devices: up to 10 devices
  • Storage: N/A
  • Battery: 2,000mAh

ZTE Max Connect’s name says it all. It can turn a mobile data signal from the AT&T or T-Mobile network into a freshly transmitted Wi-Fi signal to as many as 10 devices. It lacks a display but has LEDs to show its online status, network strength and battery life. While it is the rare hotspot with a way to plug in an external antenna for greater coverage, the Max Connect is limited to 4G speeds and tops out at a maximum throughput of 150Mbps. Still, at $65, it’s a steal for those who need to stay online.

  • Connectivity: up to 5G
  • Number of devices: up to 32 devices
  • Storage: 1GB
  • Battery: 5,040mAh

The Nighthawk M6 5G WiFi 6 hotspot is bigger and heavier than most, but it’s a beast. It works with all the 4G and 5G networks in the U.S. It will work with any active SIM card but you can expect the best results when it’s on the AT&T or T-Mobile network. It can distribute up to 2.5Gbps of mobile data but it’s one of the most expensive hotspots around. Still, the M6 is a lot of hotspot for data hogs.

What Is a Mobile Hotspot and How Does It Work?

Small and light, a hotspot is often no bigger than an Altoids box yet can put you online anywhere you can make a mobile call. Like a mobile phone but without the ability to make or take voice calls, a mobile hotspot connects to the internet the 4G or 5G mobile data network and then transmits a fresh, secure Wi-Fi network for you and your friends.

It usually can run for hours on battery power and is as secure as your router at home, often with the choice of Wi-Fi Protect Access-3 (WPA-3) level encryption. Plus, all your data is further encrypted while on the mobile data network, making everything as protected as it can be.

How Much Does a Mobile Hotspot Cost?

It depends on the hotspot, the network and the service you are paying for, but two things are relatively consistent across all the options: You have to buy the hotspot, and then you have to pay for service in perpetuity.

The up-front price of actual hotspot hardware can vary pretty widely. A major factor, for right now at least, is whether the hotspot tops out at a 4G connection or is future-looking enough to support 5G. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that 5G hotspots tend to be significantly more expensive. Where 4G hotspots can be found for under $100, 5G hotspots tend to run upwards of several hundred — just for the hardware. Almost all cellular providers allow you to pay for expensive hotspots on an installment plan, reducing the cost of even the pricey ones to around $15 a month or lower. But as with all things tech (and just in general), purchasing outright if you can afford it will almost certainly save you money in the long run.

The price of a plan also varies depending on a number of variables, including how much data you are looking to have on your plan, the speed of the connection, and whether you have an existing plan with a given provider. Verizon, for instance, offers a $20/month “Essential” plan, which comes with 15GB of data (or up to 150GB for $80/month), but only for people who are adding a hotspot to their existing coverage. At T-Mobile, you can grab a hotspot and attach it to a prepaid plan for a recurring fee of as little as $10 a month but for a smaller 2GB limit.

At the end of the day, you should expect to pay at least around $20 a month for the luxury of a hotspot after you’ve tackled the upfront costs.

Mobile Hotspot vs Smartphone Hotspot

The term “mobile hotspot” generally refers to a dedicated device, but before you go out and get one, there’s another solution you should consider: using your phone as a hotspot. Most modern phones have the ability to do the same thing a separate device can: connecting via cellular and producing a Wi-Fi network for other gadgets to connect to locally.

Using your phone keeps you from needing another network account and is one less thing to lose. On the downside, using your phone as a hotspot can cut the phone’s battery life in half. It can also add a lot of extra expense to your mobile plan, if your mobile plan supports it at all.

Setting it up is quick and simple. Here’s how:

For Android phones:

1. Start at the Settings Connections section and tap Mobile Hotspot and Tethering.2. Finish by turning the Mobile Hotspot slider switch on. 3. The network name and passcode you’ll need are now on-screen.

For iPhones and iPads:

1. Open the Settings tab on the Home screen and tap the Personal Hotspot section.2. Turn on Allow Others to Join. 3. The network’s name is your device’s name and the password appears in the middle of the screen.

If you want to use your phone as a hotspot, you need to shop carefully for mobile data plans. There’s a lot hidden in the fine print and it means that “unlimited” isn’t as clear cut as it.

• T-Mobile’s $30 Essentials, $40 Magenta and $47 Magenta Max plans provide all the hotspot data you want, but at 3G speeds. The Magenta plan adds 5GB per month of 4G/5G hotspot data while the Magenta Max plan includes 40GB of 4G/5G hotspot use.• AT&T’s Unlimited plan ($35 a month) lacks any hotspot data, but the Unlimited Extra ($40 a month) includes up to 15GB of hotspot phone use. The top-of-the-line Unlimited Elite ($50 a month) plan ups the hotspot data limit to 30GB. After that, speeds drop to 128Kbps.• Verizon has an array of five plans for phone hotspotting, but the Start Unlimited and Just Kids accounts lack any hotspot data; both cost $35. While $45 Play More and Do More Unlimited plans each include 15GB of 4G/5G hotspot usage, the $55 Get More Unlimited comes with 30GB of hotspot data. After you reach the threshold, the hotspot speed drops to roughly 600Kbps.

Using Hotspots Abroad

If you’re aching to use your passport, the good news is that hotspotting works just about anywhere in the world that the mobile data network exists, but it might cost you extra. T-Mobile leads here included international data roaming. On the other hand, speed might be limited to 256Kbps, depending on the country.

That said, AT&T requires a separate international plan, like the monthly Passport plan. It provides 2GB (for $70) or 6GB (for $140) of hotspot data per month. Alternatively, the company has an International Day Pass that provides unlimited talk, text and hotspot data for $10 a day.

By contrast, Verizon’s TravelPass lets you use your data allowance internationally; it costs $5 a day for Canada and Mexico or $10 a day for the rest of the world. There’s also a Monthly International Plan that provides 5GB of data for $100 a month or you can pay as you go at the rate of $2.05 a megabyte. Be careful, it adds up quickly.

Picking the Perfect Hotspot

When it comes to getting a mobile hotspot, our advice is to start with the data network, then pick the hardware. That’s because not all carriers have the same coverage footprint and the same hotspot devices available.

I found this out when I bought a home in rural Connecticut, where only AT&T works, making my T-Mobile accounts just about worthless. To get an idea as to what works where consult the OpenSignal app, which shows actual user experiences, not the carrier’s optimistic coverage map. It’s a sad fact that the farther you get from major highways and urban areas, the lower your data expectations should be.

Next up, the actual hotspot needs to be small, light and provide a day’s worth of battery power. Working with 5G as well as LTE 4G data is a big help, but these devices are heavier, bigger and more expensive. Also, look for a hotspot that has a good info screen and can share the Internet connection with a bunch of friends.