Worldwide data networks are about to be buried beneath an avalanche of wireless data traffic. The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) forecasts that by 2015, there will be 26 times as much mobile data traffic as there was in 2010 – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 92%. Cisco VNI also projects that, by 2015, there will be two network-connected devices for every man, woman, and child on the planet—with WiFi and mobile devices accounting for 54% of all IP traffic.
Clearly, we can expect to see a lot more WiFi-connected portable devices in the next few years—tablets, personal media players, gaming systems, ebook readers, and likely others we haven’t even thought of yet. But just how will consumers connect all those devices away from their home or office?
For several years now, mobile network operators have offered mobile hotspot devices that provide a dedicated mobile network connection over 3G or 4G networks for WiFi-enabled devices. More recently, with the advent of smartphones supporting higher rates of mobile data and the capability to receive an incoming WiFi connection, there has been a more concerted push toward WiFi tethering, effectively using the phone as a hotspot instead. But many are finding that dedicated mobile hotspots provide a better alternative to tethering for their customers, offering better battery life, support for more devices and easier connectivity. For all these reasons, mobile operators can expect mobile hotspots to become an increasingly attractive option for consumers, as well as for business and enterprise users.
The biggest reason consumers and enterprise users are looking at new mobile hotspots: they can provide a superior user experience to tethering. This should make sense; after all, a smartphone is built to do many more things besides providing WiFi connectivity. With so many other software processes and applications running at all times, a smartphone may not always prioritize the WiFi antenna or WiFi radio connection. A mobile hotspot, on the other hand, is designed strictly for that purpose. The antennas, radios, throughput, and connection with the mobile network are all optimized for providing reliable, high-performance network connections to mobile devices.
LTE hotspot can also actually extend the life of older 3G devices. If a customer bought a 3G tablet or smartphone a year ago, for example, they can move up to LTE data speeds using an LTE hotspot and a WiFi connection.
Mobile hotspots typically provide better range, allowing users to maintain a connection up to 150 feet in any direction, even as they move about. And, they often allow users to connect more devices than smartphone tethering. While tethering support varies by the network operator and specific device, most mobile phones on most networks support just a few connected devices. Newer LTE hotspots can support as many as 10 simultaneously connected devices .
On the surface, this may sound like more than most users need, but with people using so many Internet-connected devices, it’s becoming easy to reach the limits of even a generous phone tethering plan.
In a world where personal and confidential data is targeted by increasingly sophisticated threats, mobile hotspots can also offer some added peace of mind. After all, when you share a WiFi connection with others by allowing them to connect to your smartphone, you are potentially exposing all the information on that device. A hotspot isn’t a gateway into your personal life—just a dedicated Internet connection.
Another advantage of dedicated hotspots compared to smartphone tethering is battery life. Mobile network operators and OEMs are already devoting significant resources trying to make 4G devices as power-efficient as possible. But the fact remains that smartphones must maintain a wide range of “always on” software processes and services—and must support a relatively large touchscreen, which can consume as much as 50% of the device’s power.
A mobile hotspot does just one thing: it provides a network connection. Its screen requires far less power, and it is built with a larger battery than most smartphones. Mobile hotspots also can enter a sleep state to conserve energy when there is no activity—something a smartphone typically can’t do as effectively, as it needs to maintain a network connection to accept incoming calls. And when your battery runs out on your smartphone, it affects far more than whether you can connect your laptop.
For this reason and others, mobile hotspots can serve as ideal complements to smartphones, allowing users to make the best use of their phones, as phones. The benefits are even greater for users on CDMA networks, who may not realize that they cannot receive calls while tethering for an Internet connection. With a mobile hotspot, they can maintain constant Internet connectivity and reserve their phones for calls and texts.
Mobile hotspots also offer advantages for mobile network operators. Most significantly, they offer a much simpler support model compared to users tethering to mobile phones. Consider: a typical mobile operator may support as many as 10 or 15 smartphones, all of which may have different methods for enabling and configuring tethering—and all of which require individualized training and troubleshooting for support staff. In contrast, a network operator would typically only need to support one or two hotspots. Hotspots also give operators much more control and customization than smartphone tethering. For example, carriers can control which devices connect to the hotspot, set different data rates for different connections and devices, and more.
The support burden for network operators is also lower simply because connecting to a mobile hotspot is much simpler for end users than tethering. Sharing a WiFi connection on a smartphone typically requires multiple steps and configuration choices that can be confusing. With mobile hotspot, users just turn it on and connect in seconds. While some early hotspots used to require configuration comparable to a router, today’s devices are configured out of the box with default settings that users don’t have to adjust.
The forecasts are unequivocal: over the next few years people will use more connected devices and generate more wireless data traffic than ever before. The ability to use a smartphone as a hotspot can be an attractive feature, even with its inherent limitations. As connectable devices proliferate, however, and demand grows for more powerful portable WiFi solutions, the limitations of smartphone tethering will become more pronounced.