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Though it may not offer the fastest speeds or the most bang for your buck, portable internet can allow you to stream content, play online video games, and get work done from anywhere that has a cellular signal. There are essentially two basic types of portable internet: personal hotspots and dedicated (or standalone) mobile hotspots. Many cellular service providers allow subscribers to use their phones as personal hotspots to provide a WiFi signal to other devices using standard cellular data.
Alternatively, you can purchase a standalone mobile hotspot that is designed to do the exact same thing, but does not function as a phone. Instead, it operates as a portable modem and router that you can carry in your pocket. Whichever option you choose, portable internet is best for those who travel frequently, need regular access to WiFi on-the-go, or live in rural areas with limited internet options.
It may seem like an unnecessary expense to buy a standalone mobile hotspot device if your phone can do the same thing on its own. However, there are a number of advantages to using a mobile hotspot over a smartphone:
Much like smartphones, no two mobile hotspot devices are exactly alike. Some boast fast speeds, long battery life, and robust security features. However, you’ll usually need to pay a bit more if you want to get all of the best options. In any case, let’s take a closer look at the most important features you should consider when shopping for a mobile hotspot device:
When you’re on-the-go, you may not always have access to an outlet or power source. Thus, you’ll want to be sure that your mobile hotspot has enough juice to keep you connected for as long as possible. Most mobile hotspots can stay up and running for between eight and 24 hours, though some can stay on for as long as 48 hours in standby mode.
This will likely be one of the most important factors for any consumer. If you just need a mobile hotspot to send emails and do some light internet browsing, you may not care about fast speeds. However, if you plan to use a mobile hotspot as your primary internet device or you want to stream content without constant buffering, you’ll need to get a device that can handle fast speeds. Moreover, you’ll need a device that can provide a reliable connection to multiple devices at the same time, preferably supporting both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.
Unfortunately, speed is one of the most variable factors when it comes to mobile hotspots. The actual speeds you get will depend on your mobile hotspot device, your data plan, your location (you could find yourself in a cellular “dead zone”), and even the type of device you use to connect to your mobile hotspot. Download speeds can range from less than 1 Mbps to well over 100 Mbps, depending on the aforementioned factors.
Having internet on-the-go is not all about creating a WiFi connection. If you’re in a roomful of people with their own private WiFi networks, you may want to avoid the virtual congestion by simply plugging your mobile hotspot directly into your device. This is known as “USB tethering,” since many mobile hotspots have the ability to connect directly to any internet device with a USB port.
What’s the point of having a portable internet device if it’s not comfortable or feasible to carry around with you? Fortunately, most mobile hotspots are relatively small and lightweight. The vast majority of mobile hotspots are designed to easily fit in your pocket or the side pouch of a computer bag. Additionally, you can expect mobile hotspots to weigh anywhere between 5 to 10 ounces.
While some mobile hotspots are pretty simple devices with little more than an “on/off” switch, others have a touchscreen and allow you to manage all of your security settings. If you don’t want other people using your network or worse, spying on what you’re doing, you’ll need to make sure that your mobile hotspot can provide a secure connection. Mobile hotspots that allow you to set strong passwords, select a WP2 connection, create a unique SSID, use a built-in VPN, and even get regular updates will provide the best all-around security.
Crowning the best mobile hotspot is difficult, as certain devices and plans cater to different kinds of users. Thus, we will evaluate mobile hotspot models and plans based on how well they perform for people with different needs and circumstances. For many casual internet users, price is an important factor. So, let’s first look at the cheapest mobile hotspot on the market:
At just $49.99, the KuWFi 4G LTE Travel Router is one of the cheapest mobile hotspots available to consumers. It’s important to note that there are cheaper “mobile routers” out there, but they do not have a SIM card slot or built-in network capability, and therefore can only be tethered to an existing signal or device to provide WiFi (like a smartphone). Alternatively, the KuWFi 4G LTE Travel Router is affordable, light, can function as a standalone internet device, and handles speeds up to 100 Mbps. This mobile hotspot is also unlocked, which means that you can use virtually any mobile data plan with it.
The AquaFi Hotspot 4G Waterproof Mobile Hotspot is the best option if you want a sturdy device that can deliver fast speeds and reliable connections. Since the device is primarily designed for boaters, it is waterproof, meaning that you can expose this mobile hotspot to the elements and it will still work. The AquaFi Hotspot provides speeds up to 150 Mbps and connectivity for up to 10 devices. Additionally, the device can float in open water, comes with its own SIM card, and features a convenient docking device.
If you’re interested in acquiring the AquaFi Hotspot, the device itself costs $249.99. It is not unlocked, which means that you’re limited to using one of AquaFi’s preset data plans. You can either get the 5G plan for $37 per month or the 10 GB plan for $65 per month. Either plan can be reloaded with more data at any time.
Though two of the largest internet providers in the country — Verizon and AT&T — both offer decent options for mobile hotspot plans, Verizon is the clear winner. With both 4G and 5G LTE devices, Verizon mobile hotspots provide some of the fastest speeds nationwide. Additionally, they offer a variety of plans for both new and existing customers. You can choose to pay $10 per GB (postpaid) or use one of Verizon’s standard shared or unlimited plans. If you prefer to do a standalone prepaid plan, Verizon offers 6 GB for $35 per month, 16 GB for $45 per month, or 30 GB for $65 per month.
Needless to say, the best plan will depend on your needs and habits. If you already have a mobile plan with Verizon and don’t use your mobile hotspot very often, you might just want to pay by the Gigabyte. Alternatively, if you know that you’ll need internet on-the-go, any of the standalone prepaid options are great deals, with the 30 GB plan offering the best price-per-Gigabyte. Verizon will even let you finance your mobile hotspot device with zero percent APR for the first 24 months. Prices for Verizon mobile hotspots start at $79.99.
However, Verizon and AT&T are not the only options. So, let’s see how some of the other mobile hotspot plan providers compare:
*Speeds on Xfinity Unlimited plan are throttled each month after passing 20 GB.
It’s hard to narrow down the best unlocked mobile hotspot to just one choice, as there are a lot of great options out there. That said, the Netgear Unite Explore AC815S ($179.99) and the Skyroam Solis ($99.99) are two of the best unlocked mobile hotspots available. Needless to say, the Skyroam Solis is significantly cheaper, but both models offer a number of great advantages.
Let’s start with Netgear. This device has an intuitive touchscreen, which is great for consumers who like solid UI and sleek designs. With a battery life of up to 22 hours, you can easily get work done, watch a movie, and answer a few emails — all without the need to stop for a recharge. The AC815S also features a waterproof back, USB tethering, 3G and 4G LTE support, as well as download speeds of up to 450 Mbps.
Alternatively, the Skyroam Solis is a bit more simple in its design and functionality. It does not have a touchscreen, but it does provide SIM-free connectivity both domestically and internationally. That said, if you do wish to get your own data plan, it does have an optional SIM port. The Skyroam Solis has a battery life of up to 20 hours and a Skyroam smartphone application to manage your device settings. In short, it’s one of the best unlocked mobile hotspots and one of the best all-around hotspots for less than $100.
For most internet users, no, a mobile hotspot cannot replace home internet. Why? Because, on average, American households will use more than 250 GB per month in 2021. Most of this data goes toward streaming TV shows and movies, which requires relatively high download speeds and stable connections. Unfortunately, compared to more traditional options, mobile hotspots are not the ideal choice in either category.
Even if you do find a device that can handle high speeds, you’ll probably struggle to find a cost-effective plan. The average cost of a traditional internet plan (cable, fiber, fixed wireless, etc.) is about $0.50 per Megabyte of download speed. Alternatively, the average cost of mobile hotspot plans jumps to well over $3.00 per Mbps, on average. This is primarily due to the fact that mobile hotspots have very limited data caps and slower speeds, whereas more traditional internet options have higher (or no) data caps and faster speeds.
However, if you live in a rural area that doesn’t have access to traditional options, a mobile hotspot may be your best choice. Satellite or fixed wireless is also available in many rural areas, but neither offers much stability. Moreover, satellite internet can end up being just as expensive as a mobile hotspot data plan, especially when you consider the upfront cost of getting it set up.
Having said that, it’s important to note that mobile internet is getting faster and more affordable every year. With 5G rolling out in many parts of the country, mobile hotspots could become significantly better and more cost-effective in the near future. Verizon already offers a 5G mobile hotspot device and subscription, with many other providers planning to do the same very soon.