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 neighbor 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.
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Lifehacker reader LouAnn elaborates in this week’s Tech 911 question:
“Is there a way to use my phone to provide wifi to my laptop and for on demand on my smart tv so we can say goodbye to the high price of internet via cable?
I’m flabbergasted at the cost of internet!”
I, too, remain flabbergasted at the cost of internet service, especially when I think about how all my lucky friends with fiber optic internet are probably paying only $15 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 Verizon 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 Comcast plan, but even if I went cheap with Comcast, 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 the national averages PCMag measured in its latest batch of wireless testing, which tend to hover anywhere from 40–50 Mbps for downloads and 10–20 Mbps for uploads.)
This all assumes that your wireless carrier doesn’t throttle your mobile hotspot speeds, by the way. If you’re on Verizon, for example, the carrier will limit you to a paltry 600 kbps if you’re on its most basic Go Unlimited plan. Other “unlimited” plans give you better speeds, but the company will still inhibit your connection once you blow past a certain amount of data (20GB/mo on its most expensive “unlimited” plan).
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 cell phone bill. At the most extreme, you can ditch your monthly phone plan and just use a a service like Google Voice to make and receive calls when you’re at home. That, or you can get a low-cost plan (like something from Republic Wireless) 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.
If your area and smartphone supports it, you can also give Google Fi a try. You’ll pay only $20 for unlimited talking and texting each month, then a simple $10/GB rate for data—and you carry over what you don’t use. And that’s just the tip of the savings iceberg. You can try seeing if your employer (or alumni email address) grants you a discount with your current carrier. You can set up a “family plan” with a trusted friend (or four). You can build your own 1G network. You can try negotiating a cheaper plan. You have options!