Mobile hotspots are small self-contained units that receive a cellular data signal just like a smartphone, but they then create a private Wi-Fi network for your other devices to get online - sharing in the cellular data.
Think of a mobile hotspot as a cellular modem and basic Wi-Fi router combined.
Most mobile hotspots tend to be able to
serve 5–15 client devices at once - including laptops, tablets, phones, and even smart TVs and game systems.
These hotspots typically have a battery built into them, which allows you to take your Wi-Fi with you when on the go - and some even allow you to charge other devices by acting as portable battery packs.
While mobile hotspots can work on their own - many of them can also be directly tethered via USB into a computer, or into a more advanced cellular aware router - like those from WiFiRanger, Pepwave, or Cradlepoint.
Though they seem like simple devices - selecting a mobile hotspot can be confusing, and there are many options available.
This guide will educate you on the options, and on the key features to be aware of.
We also cover USB modems - which are essentially just the cellular core of a mobile hotspot. These modems are not battery powered, and can not create a Wi-Fi network to be shared by multiple devices. But if you only have a single device to get online - these USB modems are also worth considering.
Table of Contents
- Is a Basic Hotspot Enough?
- Mobile Hotspots Product Guide
- Video Overview: Future of LTE - Understanding The Tech to Select the Right Gear (Members Only, August 2017)
- Understanding the Key Features of Mobile Hotspots (Members Only Guide)
- Ways to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: Jetpack, Smartphone or Router?
- Selecting a Mobile Router - Bringing Mobile Internet Options Together and Creating a Local RV Network
- Changing SIM Card Sizes: Cutting Down & Adapting Up
- The Four Major US Carriers – Which is Best for RVers?
- Understanding Cellular Signals and Optimizing for Data Performance
Is a Basic Hotspot Enough?
For many RVers, a single basic mobile hotspot might be all that is needed to keep all your tech connected.
In fact - it is hard to beat the sheer simplicity of this solution.
But if you need more capability or flexibility than a single simple mobile hotspot can provide, more advanced router options are out there.
A mobile router may have its own internal cellular radio, or it may actually support tethering to a mobile hotspot via USB - using the hotspot for a cellular connection.
For more on these more advanced routers, see our in-depth guide:
Some of the advantages of a more advanced mobile router might include:
- Allowing you to connect to both cellular and public Wi-Fi as upstream network sources.
- Making it easier to toggle between a primary and a secondary cellular carrier for wireless connectivity.
- Simpler device configuration - you do not need to change the settings on all your devices when you change the upstream connection. You only need to make the switch in one place (on the router), and you can often even configure a router to "failover" from a primary to a secondary connection automatically.
- Providing a stronger Wi-Fi LAN signal if you have a larger area you want to be able to cover than a basic hotspot alone can reach.
- If you have wired Ethernet devices (such as game systems or network-attached storage drives), a router can often share your upstream connection with a local wired Ethernet network.
- Additional network inputs on some routers can be used for satellite, cable, or DSL connections should you have access to them.
- Some routers even let you connect to multiple upstream networks (ie. two cellular networks, or a cellular and campground Wi-Fi) at the same time for increased speed or reliability.
- Many routers support advanced network management features - such as usage tracking and limits, or the ability to host a server on your private network.
There are a lot of mobile router options on the market ranging from small basic travel routers up to professional grade equipment offering very high end features at a very high end price.
Prices can range from less than $50 all the way up to well over $1,000 - what will be best for you will really depend on your end goals, tolerance for complexity, and your overall budget.
For a lot of people - a dedicated router adds complexity without a lot of benefit. Carefully consider whether you actually need one, or whether a mobile hotspot alone is enough.
Why Not Just Use a Phone?
A smartphone creating a "Personal Hotspot" is doing the same thing via software that a mobile hotspot does - creating a private Wi-Fi network that can be shared with other nearby devices.
So if nearly every phone has this feature built in, why bother with a dedicated mobile hotspot device?
For solo travelers or as a backup connection - relying on your phone can indeed be a great plan.
But for your primary cellular connection - having a device dedicated to the job makes a lot of sense.
Dedicated mobile hotspots can be set to stay on and waiting for your clients to connect - while phones will shut down sharing if they have been left idle for a few minutes.
Having to constantly restart the Personal Hotspot feature can be maddening if you are trying to get work done.
And phones acting as a hotspot often struggle to share the connection while handling voice calls at the same time - potentially putting a damper on your phone usage.
And the biggest downside of using a phone as your primary cellular connection... What if someone goes out to run errands, and they actually take the internet with them - leaving everyone else disconnected?
Mobile Hotspots Product Guide
The grid below features all the mobile hotspots and USB modems that we are tracking on the market that might be of interest to RVers.
Click on the filter buttons to narrow down your search by features, carrier, or manufacturer - and then click on the product you would like to learn more about for our in-depth product page.
Many of the hotspots we have tested extensively, and we offer free quick reviews to everyone, as well as in-depth reviews (and even video tutorials) available to our premium members.
Our members are also invited to share reviews and commentary of their own.
Below this interactive product grid we have a member's only guide to understanding the features of mobile hotspots - as well as a spreadsheet grid comparing the options head-to-head.
TIP: Most hotspots and modems are carrier specific, but "unlocked" models can often be used to some extent on other compatible carriers. Be sure to check the tech specs to get a sense for what is possible.
Sadly - there is as yet no universal hotspot that works well across every carrier.
Verizon’s older and now obsolete USB cellular modem.
A pre-XLTE Verizon mobile hotspot that is now long obsolete.
An older XLTE-capable hotspot that is now discontinued.
Netgear Beam 340U
AT&T’s USB Modem option is slipping towards obsolescence.
The first Verizon XLTE mobile hotspot to hit the market, but it suffers a critical flaw.
Netgear Zing AirCard 771S
Sprint’s former flagship hotspot has antenna ports, but lacks LTE Plus.
Netgear AirCard 341U
Sprint’s USB modem option with MIMO antenna ports.
Netgear Unite Pro 781S
AT&T’s flagship LTE-A capable mobile hotspot.
The first USB cellular modem with XLTE, there are now better options.
Franklin Wireless Ellipsis MHS700L
Verizon’s original basic mobile hotspot, now discontinued and obsolete.
ZTE LivePro Projector
Sprint’s combo mobile hotspot and projector.
Novatel MiFi 6620L
A former flagship XLTE capable hotspot worthy of consideration.
AT&T’s entry-level LTE capable mobile hotspot is a decent basic choice.
ZTE Pocket Wi-Fi
Sprint’s flagship mobile hotspot choice – supporting LTE Plus and 802.11ac.
ZTE Falcon Z-915
T-Mobile’s now-discontinued LTE Band 12 compatible mobile hotspot.
Ellipsis MHS800L / MHS815L
Verizon’s most basic currently offered mobile hotspot.
ZTE Spro 2 Smart Projector
A combinations LED projector and hotspot.
Netgear Fuse AC779S
Sprint’s prepaid mobile hotspot is very basic, but DOES support external antennas.
Verizon’s 2015 USB cellular modem option.
Karma’s proprietary mobile hotspot provides service powered by Sprint.
AT&T’s connect car mobile hotspot is tied to one of the best plan deal around.
Verizon’s reigning flagship mobile hotspot, packed with features.
Connect car mobile hotspot provides internet while driving on the Verizon network.
Franklin Wireless R850
Sprint’s newest mobile hotspot option, with LTE Plus support but no 3G fallback.
ZTE Falcon Z-917
T-Mobile’s basic but capable LTE Band 12 compatible mobile hotspot.
Alcatel ONETOUCH Ride-Fi
Sprint’s DC powered mobile hotspot, intended for use in vehicles.
Netgear Unite Explore AC815S
AT&T’s newest flagship hotspot is full featured and built for abuse.
ZTE SyncUp Drive
T-Mobile’s connected car mobile hotspot provides internet while driving.
Wireless Home Phone & Internet
AT&T’s cellular data plan intended for homes, offers more GBs for the dollar.
Franklin u772 USB Modem
USB Modem stick designed for use with Sprint cellular data.
Global mobile hotspot with a virtual-SIM that allows you to purchase day passes for unlimited international use.
$99 - $149
T-Mobile’s new basic but capable LTE Band 12 compatible mobile hotspot.
Netgear 4G LTE Modems
A group of cellular modems that combine hardwired ethernet and cellular hotspot functions.
Verizon’s newest flagship mobile hotspot, packed with features and Cat-9 LTE support.
Verizon’s connected car mobile hotspot provides internet while underway.
ZTE Velocity USB Modem
USB Modem designed for use with AT&T cellular data.
A very basic mobile hotspot for Verizon.
ZTE Warp Connect WiFi Hotspot
A mobile hotspot device for Sprint and their prepaid brand Boost Mobile.
$49 - 144
Verizon’s newest (2017) USB cellular modem option.
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