Who Needs a Hotspot?
4G LTE networks are better than ever, and with 5G on the horizon, wireless web surfing can be faster than your home Wi-Fi connection. While most modern smartphones have a hotspot mode for occasional use, cellular modems and Wi-Fi hotspots are your best and most flexible option if you have a lot of devices you want to share web access with.
Hotspots can connect more than just laptops to the web. They’ll work just fine with a tablet, a camera, and pretty much any other Wi-Fi-enabled device. Depending on your hardware, plan, and usage, nationwide connectivity can be had for a fairly low cost, although prices can run well over $100 per month if you want to download a lot of movies and games.
Here’s what you need to know to pick the right service and hardware, along with the top-rated hotspots on each carrier, and even an international option.
Should You Wait for 5G?
We’re about to see some big changes in the hotspot world.
AT&T is about to launch the Netgear Nighthawk Fusion M5 hotspot, the first 5G hotspot, in December 2018. That will likely be followed by a Verizon 5G hotspot around April. We’re still not sure whether Sprint and T-Mobile will release 5G hotspots.
5G will be much faster than 4G, and we expect to see truly unlimited data on 5G hotspot plans. Coverage will initially be extremely limited. AT&T’s system will probably only work in the downtown areas of a dozen or so cities at first. But the race is on, and as 2019 becomes 2020 we should expect 5G coverage to spread to most major cities.
If you need a hotspot now, don’t worry. Carriers will continue to expand and improve 4G over the next five years. But if you’re looking to upgrade an existing hotspot with AT&T or Verizon and can hold out for a few months, we’d really like to see what those 5G service plans look like.
Hotspots Can’t Replace Home Internet
Wireless broadband isn’t for everyone. It costs much more per byte than a home DSL or cable setup. Plans range from “free” for 500MB per month with FreedomPop on Sprint’s network (you’ll need to buy a hotspot), up to $100 or more.
The average US home broadband subscriber uses more than 190GB of data per month, mostly because of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. So if your needs don’t involve video or music streaming, a wireless hotspot may be an alternative for your home. But if they do, you’ll find you become quickly frustrated by the data bucket limits. These tough data caps are part of why I’m so excited for the potential of 5G hotspots and networks, which may have truly unlimited plans.
So who’s using 4G hotspots, for now? First and foremost, it’s road warriors—business people who need reliable connections on the go that support multiple devices and don’t drain their phones’ batteries. Hotspot plans can be affordable alternatives to hotel or convention hall Wi-Fi, and they’re more secure and reliable than public Wi-Fi in coffee shops. Vacation home and RV owners may also enjoy hotspots to light up their roaming, part-time homesteads. And small businesses that don’t use a lot of data (for instance, ones that primarily use POS systems) may find hotspots a good alternative to a wired connection.
Comparing the Carriers
Hotspots are available from all four nationwide carriers, as well as several virtual operators that use the larger carriers’ networks. Our Fastest Mobile Networks feature compares carrier speeds and coverage in 30 major cities across the US. In general, Verizon and T-Mobile lead on speeds.
Along with the four major carriers, you can get hotspots from Boost (Sprint), Consumer Cellular (AT&T), FreedomPop (Sprint), H2O (AT&T), Karma (Sprint), and Net10 (Verizon), along with a few other minor players. Expect to pay $20 to $25 per month for 2GB of data, $40 to $50 for 5GB, and $50 to $90 for 10GB.
The smaller, virtual carriers offer low-volume prepaid plans that are best for occasional use. For light users, Karma’s $13/1GB plan is the best deal. T-Mobile and Boost offer the best deals at 10GB for $50. For heavy, regular hotspot users, the best idea is to add your hotspot line to your existing carrier’s phone plan, as a separate line. That will get you the most data for your dollar.
Be aware that if you have an unlimited data plan, that may not carry over to hotspots. If you add a hotspot onto an “unlimited” plan, you’ll get 15 to 20GB of high-speed data with Verizon, 22GB to 23GB of high-speed data with AT&T and Sprint, and 50GB with T-Mobile, but after that your data will be deprioritized, or unpredictably slowed. The Sprint and T-Mobile plans also choke down video streams to low quality.
Unfortunately, you may have to trade off between price and device quality. The best hotspot hardware, by far, is found on AT&T and Verizon. The smaller, less expensive carriers tend to have weaker, slower hotspots that don’t take advantage of new network features.
Can’t get coverage where you live? WISPs (wireless ISPs) generally use larger, home-based modems, but they’re available in many small towns where traditional broadband or cellular service can’t be found.
The Best Hotspot Hardware
The four carriers have been frantically upgrading their networks recently, and in many cases, network capabilities have now outstripped the quality of the hotspots running on them. That means recent phones may get better speeds than hotspots do.
The best hotspots use the Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 or X20 modems, which you’ll find in the Netgear Nighthawk for AT&T and the MiFi 8800L for Verizon. Those are capable of, if not hitting every network feature, getting most of them. Other hotspots out there, including everything Sprint, T-Mobile, and the virtual carriers currently sell, use three- or four-year-old modems that have lower speeds and worse signal strength than the best new phones. That means you may get 5Mbps to 10Mbps where your phone gets 25Mbps to 30Mbps, for instance.
High-quality hotspots also have TS9 external antenna ports to help you improve your signal using inexpensive antennas you can purchase online. TS9 is a standard, and these antennas cost much less than a cellular signal booster does.
Keep an eye out for hotspots that support 5GHz Wi-Fi, which is typically faster and less congested than 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Some hotspots also support guest networks and access controls, such as MAC filtering and time-based access controls. Those features are on pretty much all dedicated routers nowadays, but you can’t take them for granted on mobile hotspots.
Hotspots with big batteries can be used as backup batteries to charge your phone, and hotspots with microSD card slots can be used as tiny servers to share media on their Wi-Fi networks. That said, we’ve never found a real use for that media server functionality.
We really like the displays on the front of many current hotspots. They can report the strength of your signal, your hotspot’s name, data usage, and the network password right on the device.
To Tether or Not to Tether?
If you decide to make the jump, hotspots and cellular modems aren’t the only option. Most smartphones also have integrated “wireless hotspot” modes that let them connect other devices via Wi-Fi. Most higher-end wireless data plans now include hotspot use, though some service plans require an extra charge. This is a good solution for occasional use, but since it drains your phone’s battery, it isn’t an all-the-time solution.
To help narrow down your decision, head over to our explainer on the tethering vs. dedicated hotspot debate. And check out our tips on how to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Beware: Overseas Surfing Will Cost You
Traveling soon? US hotspots generally allow you to roam in Canada and Mexico, although rates may be high—definitely check with your carrier in advance to find out. For short trips further abroad, we recommend renting the RoamingMan U2 hotspot, which has LTE connectivity in most places. It’s surprisingly hard to find an unlocked hotspot with global LTE bands in the US, so if you want to go the route where you buy a local SIM to take advantage of much lower local data rates, your best choice is to use the hotspot function on your phone.
And before you commit to a modem or a plan, make sure to check out our most recent hotspot reviews.
Pros: Fastest hotspot hardware available. Excellent access controls. Long battery life. Cons: Heavy. No touch screen.Bottom Line: The Nighthawk for AT&T is the first hotspot to support gigabit LTE, the fastest LTE standard currently available.Read Review
Pros: Fastest 4G LTE technologies. Long battery life. Easy-to-use touch-screen UI.Cons: 5G is on the horizon.Bottom Line: The new Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L hotspot has the best 4G LTE networking capabilities available today-but Verizon is about to launch a 5G network that could change everything.Read Review
Pros: Inexpensive hardware and service plans. Simple to use. Good speeds with good signal.Cons: No display or external antenna ports. Old chipset gets lower speeds indoors than new smartphones.Bottom Line: The Alcatel Linkzone is the only hotspot available for T-Mobile. It’s a good value for the price, but it has a lot of limits.Read Review
Pros: Excellent service plans. External antenna jack.Cons: Slow modem means slow speeds. No 5GHz Wi-Fi. No data usage on front display.Bottom Line: The ZTE Warp Connect is the best of Sprint’s unimpressive hotspot selection thanks to its external antenna port.Read Review
Pros: Affordable, unlimited data and fast 4G LTE. Strong network performance. Solid battery life. Simple, easily portable design.Cons: Limited configuration options.Bottom Line: The Roaming Man U2 Global Wi-Fi Hotspot gives you unlimited data for $9.99 per day while traveling in over 100 countries.Read Review
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