Smartphone, Hotspot or Router for Mobile Internet?
Cellular data is a popular choice for RVers and boaters for online mobile connectivity. And choosing if you should hotspot off a smartphone, use a mobile hotspot device like a Jetpack or MiFi, or go all in with a cellular embedded router is a critical part in choosing your ultimate mobile internet setup.
Once you decide on the carrier(s) you want in your arsenal, you have to decide what specific equipment makes the most sense for getting online.
The basic options include devices that are purpose-built for this including mobile hotspot devices & cellular embedded routers - or putting cellular-connected tablets and phones to work by providing an internet connection.
Keep in mind you'll also need a compatible data plan for the type of device you want to use in your setup.
What are the advantages and drawbacks of each? Those are the questions this guide is written to answer.
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Smartphone, Hotspot or Router Video Overview
Learn about the pros & cons of smartphones, tablets, mobile hotspots & routers in our short overview video:
Smartphone Personal Hotspot
The simplest way that many utilize cellular data is by using the built-in personal mobile hotspot or tethering feature provided by most smartphones & tablets. This basically allows the hotspot feature to let your smartphone act as a basic router to provide an internet connection for other devices.
Most smartphones and cellular-enabled tablets can create a Wi-Fi hotspot and/or be directly tethered to a device, like a laptop, to get online. There are two terms you might hear this referred to:
- Personal Hotspot is when you connect to your phone over the Wi-Fi network it creates.
- Tethering is when you connect directly with a USB cable.
The carriers treat both of these uses the same and classify it as mobile hotspot use. On most smartphone and tablet plans, there is a defined amount of high-speed hotspot use included that is separate from the data you can use directly 'on device'.
To use this feature, there's usually an option in the device’s settings called Personal Hotspot – and you can easily configure a network name and password to protect the connection.
Tip: Some mobile routers even support USB tethering to smartphones if you want to integrate in the personal mobile hotspot allowance into your local area network.
- Super simple - Most people carry a smartphone anyway, so this can reduce the amount of gear you carry. And you can always have internet access with you (as long as you remember to charge your phone and have signal).
- Data Plan Support - Mobile hotspot support is included on many plans, but there are generally limitations regarding hotspot use:
- On "unlimited" data plans there are usually caps on how much data is available for mobile hotspot use at high speed. These tend to range from 10-100GB depending on the plan.
- On most tiered data plans mobile hotspot is typically included at no extra fee.
- Some entry level data plans don't include any hotspot use, or only at throttled speeds.
- Some MVNO and reseller plans don't officially include mobile hotspot use, and some may charge an extra fee.
- Dual SIM - Many flagship current phones allow you to carry multiple plans on a single phone, giving you carrier redundancy on one device.
- Up to Date Technology - Flagship models will tend to have the latest and greatest modem technology for the fastest speed and coverage.
- High-Speed Mobile Hotspot Caps - Most "unlimited" smartphone data plans have caps on high-speed mobile hotspot use for using your smartphone like a router, which can make these plans great for a back-up option, but not a primary home internet replacement.
- Not Ideal for Multi-Person Households - What happens if the person with the hotspot-enabled smartphone takes it with them to run errands? Everyone else needs to switch internet sources, which makes relying on smartphone hotspotting not ideal as a primary internet source.
- Conflicting Functions - Phones are not primarily designed for hot-spotting, and sometimes utilizing the phone or tablet can interfere if you're trying to hotspot at the same time. For example, talking on your phone can sometimes take your devices offline or reduce the network data-connection speed.
- Not Always On - Smartphones go into power reduction mode when there’s no activity, including disconnecting personal hotspot. You'll need to wake your phone and then re-enable the hotspot. This also makes this option not ideal for a connection you leave behind for remote access or monitoring.
- Wi-Fi Confusion - Smartphones aren't intended to be a dedicated mobile hotspot router, and can also connect to other Wi-Fi networks to get their internet connectivity. Many try to default to this when available to save your data usage. When connected to other networks, the personal hotspot is disabled.
- Battery Usage & Wear - Hotspotting requires a lot of power and can drain the battery pretty quickly, so make sure the device is plugged in. Prolonged use may also not be recommended, as it can result in battery swelling due to excessive heat.
- No Antenna Ports - Smartphones don't have antenna ports - which means you can't use external antennas with them like you can a mobile hotspot or router. An expensive cellular booster (which often isn't the best choice for data performance) is the only signal-enhancing option.
- Limited Wi-Fi Hotspot Range - Most smartphones can only create a low powered W-Fi hotspot that doesn't reach as far as a dedicated data device like a hotspot or router.
- Solo travelers.
- Those not dependent on internet for critical tasks.
- As a back-up to your primary internet sources.
- Mobile 'out and about' internet access away from the RV or boat.
Tablet On Device Data
A tablet (or even a large-screen smartphone) can do a lot these days. Models that come with embedded cellular modems can do even more and might be worth the extra cost to enhance your mobile internet setup.
With a built-in microphone and higher-end camera, they can serve as an ideal video conferencing appliance. The screen is large enough for watching movies and videos, or use an HDMI out method to cast the image to a larger screen. Add on a bluetooth keyboard, and they can also do a lot of functions that a laptop can for e-mail, web browsing, remote learning, and content creation.
If you can offload a lot of your online usage to doing things directly on a tablet (or even a cellular embedded laptop), there are very affordable unlimited data plans available for the cellular-equipped models. And then you can save your more limited and expensive hotspot data for tasks that require it.
- Affordable Unlimited Plans - A cellular-enabled tablet can be added on to most smartphone unlimited carrier direct postpaid plans for $10-30/month - giving the tablet unlimited on device usage. Some plans even include some mobile hotspot data.
- Flexible Data Plans / Dual SIM - The carriers tend to offer flexible data plans you can activate as you need them right on the device with an embedded SIM card. And many modern tablets offer Dual SIM ability (just like smartphones) to allow you to carry multiple carriers on one device.
- On Device Tasks - With millions of apps available from productivity, video streaming, video conferencing, reading, gaming, and more - there's a lot you can do directly on a tablet. This allows you to save your precious hotspot data for things that require it.
- Variety of sizes - Tablets come in a wide variety of sizes, from 'large smartphones' to 'practically laptops'.
- Almost a Laptop - Add on a bluetooth keyboard and/or trackpad, and you can convert a tablet into being almost a laptop. It'll still be app-based, and there may still be tasks you need to accomplish that only a traditional computer can do - but laptops can play a huge role in a technology setup.
- Great Navigation Devices - A cellular-enabled tablet includes a true GPS chip, and it's active even if you don't have an active plan. With many navigation apps available for both RVs and boats, you don't have to choose a dedicated GPS display unit. Use your large screen, and run the app (or multiple apps) that work best for your travel style.
- Range of Options & Prices - Just like laptops, tablets come in a range of prices and options. Some can be just as expensive as high-end laptops. For mobile internet, focus on more modern models that will give you a cellular modem that can use today's latest technology. But also make sure the unit itself can suit your needs and has a screen size that fits how you use your technology.
- No Antenna Ports - Tablets don't have antenna ports - which means you can't use external antennas with them. An expensive cellular booster (which often isn't the best choice for data performance) is the only signal-enhancing option.
- Those who have a lot of data needs, especially for video streaming or conferencing.
- Those who can perform a lot of tasks from a tablet.
- Those who want a simple solution that can combine both the functions of laptop with the mobile internet connection built in.
Mobile Hotspot Devices (Jetpack/MiFi)
Also sometimes referred to as a Jetpack or MiFi (they're just marketing brand names for the same thing - kinda like Kleenex or Puffs for facial tissues), mobile hotspot devices are small self-contained basic routers that receive a cellular signal and then broadcast a Wi-Fi hotspot that enables your other devices to get online.
They combine a cellular modem and Wi-Fi router, and, unlike smartphones, they can't make voice calls or do much else except provide access to the internet using cellular data.
Most mobile hotspots provide an internet connection to 5–15 devices at once via Wi-Fi. Most have a battery built into the device, which allows you to take it with you when on the go.
They can usually be connected directly to a computer or mobile router with a USB or Ethernet cable (depending on the device). When connected to a more capable router, they can become part of your local area network and connect many more devices.
- Self-contained - You can take your internet with you, even away from the RV or boat. These devices are portable, self-powered with a battery, and can be used anywhere there is a usable cell signal.
- Plug-n-Play - These are fairly simple plug-and-play devices that are ideal for users who don’t want to have to learn to manage other more complex options.
- Dedicated to Data - These are dedicated devices that have one purpose - provide a mobile cellular data connection. They can be left in your tech cabinet or desk and, when plugged into power, create an always-on data connection.
- Antenna Ports - Many hotspots have antenna ports, allowing you to connect antennas to enhance the signal. External antennas are often better for data performance than higher priced cellular boosters.
- Consumer Pricing - Mobile hotspot devices tend to be more affordable than more advanced devices like cellular embedded routers. Mobile hotspot devices are generally priced from $50-$500 retail.
- More Wi-Fi & Connection Options - Many hotspot devices can transmit their Wi-Fi network over 2.4 or 5 GHz frequencies, giving you more options for higher speeds and/or avoiding Wi-Fi congestion. Some hotspots even have built-in ethernet ports for direct connections to a computer or router, and almost all support USB tethering to mobile routers or your computer.
- Up to Date Tech - Newer cellular technology is usually available earlier on mobile hotspot devices than routers, so this is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to update a mobile internet arsenal and to stay current.
- Additional Devices - You'll have the one-time expense of a hardware purchase typically for each carrier you want data service on, and you'll need to juggle those devices at each location to find the best service and manage your data plans.
- Firmware - Mobile hotspots aren't as complex as smartphones, but they do have a good amount of complex software (called firmware) installed inside them to allow them to function as a router and create a hotspot. A bad firmware release can potentially create issues that the manufacturer & carrier are slow to fix.
- Limited Features - Hotspot devices are made to 'just work' for a typical consumer, and don't enable more advanced features that allow for fine tuning a connection.
- Limited Wi-Fi Range - Their Wi-Fi range will reach most areas of typical sized RVs and boats and sometimes outside, but range is still limited because the Wi-Fi radios don't have a lot of power compared to a dedicated router. This solution isn't optimal for those who want a solid signal further away than the size of a moderate household room.
- Special Data Plans - Only data plans specifically intended for data-only devices work in mobile hotspot devices, and they generally come with data caps (even if marketed as "unlimited").
- Swollen Batteries - Some models with batteries require the battery to be inserted to operate, which means you'll need to regularly inspect the health of the battery for optimal operation, and potentially replace once or twice a year. Keeping the hotspot plugged in to provide an always-on connection can shorten battery life considerably. (more: How to Check Your Hotspot, Prolong Battery Life & Battery Replacement Guide)
- Carrier Specific - Most hotspot devices are optimized for a specific carrier and the cellular frequency bands they utilize, so you'll likely need one device for each carrier you want.
- Multi-person or multi-device households
- Those who need a dedicated data connection, and prefer a simple plug-and-play solution.
- Those who have basic local area networking needs.
USB stick device (or older style Express Card): These need to plug into something in order to be functional – either your computer or a compatible router. If you’re traveling solo and just need to keep a laptop online, this may be an ideal solution on its own. While an elegant solution, the options on the market tend to be further behind in technology than hotspot devices.
Connected Car: Some vehicles have a mobile hotspot built-in, perhaps as part of safety and information services, such as OnStar. The hotspot allows the vehicle to connect to the internet to provide safety, telematics, and concierge services, but it can also provide an internet connection for passengers. For vehicles without this built-in feature, there are also devices that plug directly into the vehicle's diagnostic port (OBD-2) that enable this functionality. The downside is, in order to utilize the connection - generally the ignition has to be on, making it less than ideal for an RV connection when parked.
To learn more about selecting a mobile hotspot device and view the current top recommended models for each carrier:
Cellular Embedded Routers
Mobile routers are used for creating a local area network that can bring together multiple internet sources, allowing your local gear to only need to connect to a single network (yours), provided by the router. Unlike their residential cousins, mobile routers can utilize internet sources more typically found while RVing and boating - cellular and other Wi-Fi networks.
Some mobile routers come equipped with cellular modems built-in, making them sort of 'hotspots on steroids'. And they are far more advanced than just hotspotting off a smartphone.
Routers come in many shapes and forms, from small boxes you keep inside and attach external antennas to - to routers & modems that actually get installed outside.
- Advanced Networking - Ability to create a more robust local area wired and/or wireless network - with the ability to support printers, streaming devices, remote monitoring, backup servers, and any other network devices.
- Advanced Features - Cellular routers tend to offer more options for fine tuning performance for increased reliability. Such as cellular band locking to optimize a connection, load balancing, auto-failover and bonding.
- Multiple WAN Connections - Mobile routers can combine multiple internet sources such as cellular, Wi-Fi as WAN, and satellite - acting as a central gateway to simplify how your devices connect to the internet.
- Extended Wi-Fi Range - Mobile routers have more powerful WiFi radios that can provide a connection further than what a smartphone or mobile hotspot device alone can provide.
- Carrier Agnostic - Cellular embedded mobile routers tend to have modems that can utilize any carrier's network.
- Dual SIM/Modem - Some models have dual SIM slots, so you can more easily switch between carriers or plans. And some models even have two (or more) modems, so you can use multiple carriers at once.
- Slower to Update - Cellular-integrated routers tend to be updated less frequently, so they often lag a year (or more) behind mobile hotspot devices and smartphones in supporting the latest cellular frequency bands and technologies.
- Advanced - Utilizing a dedicated router may require some networking knowledge - some manufacturers, especially enterprise-level gear, design their systems and interfaces for professional IT staff and not end consumers. The user interface may be non-intuitive for those who want to dive deeper into fine tuning and consumer-level support may not be offered.
- Expensive - Higher costs of acquisition - anticipating the starting point of cellular embedded mobile routers to be around $350 and going up to around $2500. There are many suitable options below $1000 however. A multi-modem router may actually work out cheaper than buying multiple hotspots and a tetherable router.
- Limited Data Plan Options - Mobile routers are best paired with a high-capacity or unlimited cellular data plan, which can be difficult or expensive to find. Know what your data needs are upfront and make sure there are suitable plans out there to meet them before jumping on board with an expensive router solution.
- Those who need to connect many devices to the internet.
- Those who need a reliable redundant system that is centralized.
- Those with more advanced local area networking needs.
- Those who are a bit more tech savvy.
For a list & full overview of current Mobile & Integrated Router options, check our guide:
Cellular Data Resources & Sample Setups of Smartphones, Hotspots & Routers
Understanding cellular data gear and resources is big and complicated, with a lot to understand. For more on utilizing cellular in your mobile internet setup - including shopping for gear, data plans, and signal enhancing - head on over to:
Our members also have access to examples setup to interactively explore with currently featured options for each component (click to head on over!):
Conclusion: Smartphones, Hotspots & Routers All Have Considerations
Choosing your right approach to your mobile internet solution takes some time and consideration in how you might utilize smartphones, hotspots, routers and tablets for cellular connectivity. And you don't necessarily need to choose one or the other - you might find that using a combination of solutions is right for your unique application.
Regardless of which method you decide on, for maximum coverage and speed we recommend purchasing the newest cellular devices you can and plan on replacing your hardware as often as every year or two to stay current.
All of the carriers are expanding their networks, and newer equipment is what gets you access to the latest frequencies and bands.
Mobile hotspot devices are small, self-contained units that receive a cellular data signal and transform it into an internet connection. They are a cellular modem and router combined. Most can create their own personal Wi-Fi network.
They are typically designed with a specific cellular carrier in mind and require a suitable cellular data plan of their own to operate. You might see them called Jetpacks (Verizon's term for them) or MiFi (Inseego's name for them).
Here's a quick video going over the features of a hotspot, and what makes one better than another:
The guides below have been hand-picked to help further your education about selecting mobile hotspots and best utilizing them in your mobile internet setup.
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