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Sharing a Mobile Data Connection with Your PC

With the advent of 3G cellular technology, it suddenly became feasible to use your cell phone to access the Internet. Before 3G, rates were just too slow; loading a simple web page could take minutes, not seconds.

3G’s maximum 2Mbps data download speed is close to that offered by many home Internet service providers (ISPs); DSL, for example, typically delivers speeds in the same 2Mbps range. Naturally, when we’re talking 4G networks with speeds approaching 300Mbps, cellular Internet is suddenly faster than what you get at home—or sitting in your local Wi-Fi hotspot.

With that in mind, why not use your smartphone to provide Internet access for your computer? Well, you can—and there are two different ways to do it.

External Data Modems

Most cellular providers offer external data modems that provide access to their 3G or 4G cellular-data network. These modems are small and portable and connect to your computer via USB; they let you access the cellular network with your PC, just as you do with your phone.

What this means is that you can now connect to the Internet anywhere you can receive a cellular connection. This lets you surf the web in places where you can’t get Wi-Fi, such as when you’re driving your car.

Figure 4.3 shows a typical USB modem from AT&T. You’ll want to purchase the right modem for the connection you want; most carriers offer separate 3G and 4G modems. Expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $300, depending on the unit, the carrier, and which service plan you subscribe to. Oh, and you’ll have to pay for a data service plan; the more data you use, the more you’ll pay each month.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3. AT&T’s USBConnect Force 4G USB modem.

Tethering Your Smartphone

Some carriers let you connect your computer to their data networks without purchasing a separate modem for your PC. Instead, you connect a cable between your computer and your smartphone; you connect to the data network with your smartphone and then share the Internet connection with your PC.

This process is called tethering, and it’s a great way to share a connection and an existing data service plan. Not all carriers support this type of tethering, however, and those that do may charge extra for it—in addition to the normal data usage plan. For example, T-Mobile has a $15/month tethering charge, Verizon charges $20/month, and Sprint charges $30/month, all in addition to your normal data plan; AT&T includes tethering in its $45/month 4GB data plan.

Tethering can be done both physically or via Wi-Fi. We’ll look at both methods.

A physical tether requires the use of a USB cable or special data connection kit. Essentially, you connect one end of the cable to your smartphone and the other to your PC, as shown in Figure 4.4. Once everything’s connected, you run a special tethering app to pipe the Internet signal from your phone to your computer.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4. Sharing a cellular data signal via physical tether.

A Wi-Fi tether turns your smartphone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. You establish an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network with your phone as the router, and then connect your computer to that network to share the phone’s Internet connection. It’s easier than it sounds, especially when facilitated by using the appropriate tethering app on your phone.

Powering Your Home Network with Your Cellular Signal

Here’s something else you may not have considered. Some manufacturers make what they call mobile broadband routers that receive a 3G (or, in some instances, 4G) mobile signal and then convert it into Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi signal is then broadcast throughout your home, same as with a wireless router, and all of your Wi-Fi-enabled devices can connect to it to access the Internet.

Figure 4.5 shows one such device from NETGEAR. The little receiver on the right is what picks up your cellular signal; it’s connected to the big unit on the left, which is essentially a wireless router. The router provides the Wi-Fi signal for your network of devices.

Figure 7-2

Figure 4.5. NETGEAR’s MBRN3000 Mobile Broadband Router. (Photo courtesy of NETGEAR.)

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