Can My Phone’s Hotspot Be My Only Internet Connection?

Yes, there are places in this world where you can’t get online—and I’m not talking about a remote tropical locale where it’s impossible for you to play Emoji Blitz while you’re on vacation. Plenty of places in the U.S. either have crappy or non-existent internet, requiring you to get creative to get connected.

Q: My poor smartphone is my lifeline to the internet

I just moved into a new apartment. I am a virtual math tutor for a state college. Right now we are between semesters so I am working on a number of small personal business projects. They involve very basic internet tasks only, i.e., Google searches, checking web-based email, and perhaps watching the occasional YouTube video.

I have been using my (new—4G) Verizon prepaid mobile phone as a hotspot. It has been working like a charm for now. However, next week we have some online training via Skype. And then on June 1, we resume tutoring and will also be using WCOnline, Blackboard and Zoom. Should I subscribe to home (wireless) internet (the only option I have here is HughesNet) or will my mobile phone hotspot be sufficient? In addition, how much more data consumption will take place when doing online tutoring versus what I am doing now? (I have used approximately 5 GB of data within the past week on the previously mentioned tasks, and that was being on the computer for 5 hours per day on average.)

In short, I need the most cost-effective, amply sufficient speed/data to do my job. Please advise.

A: I wouldn’t use satellite internet unless I had no other choice

First off, I’m sorry that internet service is so spotty where you live. Satellite internet—the solution you mention—is about as enjoyable as DSL, and undoubtedly costs more. In fact, let’s look that up right now, because that’s going to be a big part of my answer.

I typed in a random Maryland address, since that’s what Hughesnet provides as an example when you go to look at its plans’ pricing, and pulled up the following; you’ll have to pay this much, at minimum, for these data caps:

  • 10GB: $60/mo
  • 20GB: $70/mo
  • 30GB: $100/mo
  • 50GB: $150/mo

As you can probably guess, that’s not a lot of data for a pretty high monthly fee—not even taking into account the $450 equipment you’ll have to purchase (or lease for a $100 setup fee plus $10/month extra charge) just to get started. While Hughsnet gives you 50 extra gigabytes each month that you can use to do whatever you want between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., that’s only really useful for scheduled downloading. And if you blow past your data cap, you won’t pay more, you’ll just get throttled down to 1-3 Mbps, which is…not great, unless you’re playing a lot of text-based MMOs with your friends.

However, you tether your phone to give yourself an internet connection, which is a smart, money-saving move if you really don’t use the internet very much or have subscribed to an unlimited-data plan that works well for you.

I don’t have a good suggestion for how much extra data you’ll use each week with all the new activities you’ll be pursuing—but I’m not sure that matters. Were I you, I’d simply find the fastest unlimited plan I’d be willing to pay for from my cell carrier. In my case, I’m on Verizon, so something like it’s “Play More Unlimited” plan—$70/month for unlimited 4G LTE data for your phone and unlimited hotspot data—would be a good bet. The catch is that I’d only get 25GB and 15GB of speedy data, respectively, before they’d throttled me down to 600Mbps. That’s not great, but it’s still a lot better than satellite internet.

Of course, you can pay Verizon more to increase your “premium data” chunk for your mobile hotspot. And if you’re willing to switch carriers, you might find a plan that’s even better. For example:

  • AT&TUnlimited plan with hotspot access starts at $75/month, with 50GB of regular high-speed data and 15GB of hotspot data. (You’re throttled to 128Kbps if you go over.)
  • T-Mobile: For $60/month, you get unlimited 4G LTE data and unlimited 3G data for your hotspot. You’ll probably want to bump up to the $70/month plan, however, which gets you 3GB of 4G data for your hotspot before you’re throttled back down to 3G speeds—anywhere from 1 to 8Mbps (meh).
  • Sprint: A $70/month plan gets you unlimited data for your phone and a whopping 50GB of LTE data for your hotspot. Blow past that amount, and you’re throttled back to 3G speeds.

I never thought I’d say it, but if you have good Sprint service in your area, you might want to investigate the carrier’s offerings—assuming this all doesn’t change wildly once T-Mobile absorbs it, that is. That could take years, though, so I wouldn’t stress just yet. You could also try investigating a cheaper MVNO, or a wireless carrier that piggybacks on an existing network (like Visible with Verizon) to offer cheaper services with fewer features. In this case, you can get a cheap Visible plan that gives you unlimited, albeit slow, hotspot data (5Mbps). It’s not great, but it’s a consideration if you’re on a budget.

That said, make sure to do your due diligence and investigate any and all alternative internet options. That even includes crappy DSL; I don’t love it, but it’ll still be faster and cost less than using your phone as a hotspot on any plan you pick from your wireless carrier. Satellite internet should be considered the internet of last resort. If you have no other alternatives whatsoever, it’ll work, but the experience will be much worse than basically anything else.

Out of curiosity, what do your new neighbors do for internet access? You might want to talk to them, too—perhaps they know about an amazing local solution that you don’t.

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