Mobile hotspots, which use cellular data to connect nearby devices to the internet, are helpful tools for remote workers in case of Wi-Fi connectivity issues.
There are two types: dedicated hotspot devices and personal hotspots. Dedicated devices are hardware specifically made to provide a hotspot connection, and they come with their own data plans. A personal hotspot is a common smartphone feature that makes it possible for the phone to act as a wireless router, broadcasting a service set identifier -- or network name -- and enabling the connection of devices such as laptops and tablets to that router. Remote workers who don't have a steady or secure internet connection can easily set up their smartphone's hotspot and connect their laptop or tablet to gain the capabilities they had with regular Wi-Fi.
A personal hotspot, however, comes with the following limitations:
- It uses battery power very quickly. Users should plug their device into a power source while using the hotspot.
- It can effectively support two or three users or devices unless they are doing internet-intensive work. Using it to support an individual device will provide the best performance.
- The mobile phone hosting the hotspot must support the latest cellular and Wi-Fi technology.
- It uses up a lot of cellular data.
As a result, dedicated hotspot devices are a better fit for some use cases. While using a smartphone's hotspot feature is more cost-effective, there are features and capabilities that can make a mobile hotspot device more advantageous. It is important to analyze these options and their features to choose between personal hotspots and dedicated hotspot devices. For many organizations, the best strategy might be a combination of the two.
IT managers should assess their organizations' needs to determine which tools to use. The following table outlines the differences between personal hotspots and dedicated hotspot devices:
|Dedicated hotspot device
|Usually too costly for an individual.
|Can handle a few users, but performance might be an issue.
|Many devices offer 10-30 connections, making it excellent for groups or team collaboration and remote meetings.
|Drains the smartphone's battery.
|Offers 6-24 hours of continuous use for multiple users, depending on the device.
|Usually built into the phone's data plan, but some plans exclude hotspot access.
|Wide variety of data plans, with some that come built into the device. More robust offerings than phone plans.
|Use the carrier's SIM. Unlocked to ensure local country SIM is often available.
|Some devices are locked to a carrier, but most are unlocked. Some devices only work in certain global areas.
|Included in the cost of the phone.
|Range in cost from $20-$1000. Some are pocket-sized for individual use; others are large devices connecting 32 users.
|Limited but simple to set up, and easier to use than a separate device.
|Some include Ethernet ports, external antenna ports, management software, or advanced security options. Various devices support Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6. Flexible based on carrier network.
For sales staff that operate on their own, the smartphone might be the best option. But for a team of auditors that need stronger security, an external hotspot device with multiple connections and more management would be best. If a user's smartphone doesn't have a hotspot feature or if their data plan excludes it, they can consider purchasing an inexpensive hotspot device. Overall, the choice should match the need.
Important factors for choosing a mobile hotspot device
When deciding to purchase an external hotspot device, there are several factors to consider. IT teams can find the best option for their organization by examining costs, battery life, available features and more.
Cost of the device and data plan
Costs can range anywhere from $20 -- such as with small pocket hotspots for individual users -- to nearly $1000 -- such as with hotspots that can connect over 30 devices and offer several additional features. These hotspots come with their own data plans as well. Some have built-in plans included with the device, while others have separate plans.
Wireless standard connectivity
When purchasing a Wi-Fi hotspot, note which of the following wireless standards it supports:
- 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6). This is the newest standard with the fastest speeds.
- 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5). This standard has slower speeds and is found on most 4G LTE hotspots.
- 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4). This standard has the slowest speeds and is not ideal for connecting multiple devices.
Compare the network frequencies of the device with the network provider. Note that wireless speeds vary based on the carrier's availability in certain locations. Speeds might also vary across a country, but a Wi-Fi 6 device will connect to a Wi-Fi 4 network at the Wi-Fi 4 speed. Download speeds depend on the carrier's network in a given location.
Battery life varies greatly, generally ranging from 6 to 24 continuous service hours. If the device is only used intermittently, battery life will be longer. Users should realistically be able to keep the device plugged in most of the time, so battery life isn't a top issue in many cases.
SIM card lock
This is one of the most important hotspot considerations. A locked device comes with a SIM card from a carrier, and the customer is bound to that carrier. Thus, when using it internationally, it's not possible to shop around for a local SIM card to get a better rate. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all provide locked versions that are available on Amazon or through the carrier. Unlocked devices do not come with a SIM -- or they come with a replaceable one -- so customers can purchase a SIM and separate data plan, which many manufacturers offer with their device.
This aspect is complicated, as international capability can mean different things. Some Huawei hotspots, for example, are built for Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, and they actually won't work in the U.S. If users need support for uncommon countries, check the list of countries the device supports.
There are three ranges for 5G: low-band, midband and high-band. These bands operate at specific frequencies and provide varying speeds and areas of coverage. Low-band 5G has the best coverage of the three but the slowest speed. High-band 5G has the fastest connection speeds but at a cost of limited coverage. Midband 5G provides a balance between the two, offering good speed and coverage. C-band, which the Federal Communications Commission granted licenses for in 2021, is a frequency range on the midband spectrum that offers the best performance. Because it is new, however, few hotspot devices currently support it.
IT administrators should also consider the following questions:
- Is the hotspot device commonly available? Devices should be easy to obtain for replacement and expansion.
- How many devices can the hotspot support simultaneously?
- Does the hotspot include a TS-9 port or other external antenna support? An antenna provides better coverage.
- Does the hotspot include an Ethernet port? This provides additional connectivity.
9 mobile hotspot device options to consider
It is important to review and compare the capabilities of mobile hotspot devices to determine which one fits an organization's requirements. The following table outlines the features of some different hotspot devices:
|Alcatel Linkzone 2
|GlocalMe G4 Pro
|Inseego MiFi X Pro 5G
|Keepgo Lifetime World Mobile Hotspot
|Netgear Nighthawk M6 Pro
|Netgear Nighthawk M1
|Orbic Speed 5G UW
|Simo Solis 5G
|Simo Solis Lite
|5G, 4G LTE
|5G, 4G LTE
|5G, 46 LTE
|Locked to T-Mobile and Verizon
|Locked to Verizon
|Number of devices supported
|Provide your own
|Not required, pay as you go
|Provide your own
|Provide your own
Analyzing where the device will be in use, necessary features and performance expectations can help IT managers match up user requirements with devices. However, the cost of the data plan will be a key factor in determining the strategy that is the best fit. Consider existing corporate data plans and any benefits that might come with current network carriers to make a cost-effective decision. Pre-owned hotspot devices or hotspots that don't offer international capability are also more affordable options to look into.
The methodology used in creating the following list is based on a comprehensive evaluation of various devices across different price ranges and feature levels. The device descriptions include their specifications and features that are important for business usage, including connectivity options, data plans, battery life, device compatibility and other functionalities. This list is not ranked and instead appears in alphabetical order.
Alcatel Linkzone 2
Available at a range of prices from third-party sellers, Alcatel's Linkzone 2 is an especially budget-friendly option. Featuring 4G LTE and Wi-Fi 4, it supports up to 16 devices and has 24 hours of battery life, putting this hotspot among devices costing hundreds of dollars more. Its major drawback is that it won't work on Verizon or Sprint networks.
GlocalMe G4 Pro
G4 Pro from GlocalMe is similar to the Linkzone 2. With support in over 145 countries, the G4 Pro features a pay-as-you-go data plan that includes a 1 GB initial global data plan.
Inseego MiFi X Pro 5G
The MiFi X Pro 5G comes with Wi-Fi 6, a 24-hour battery life, an Ethernet port and connectivity for up to 32 devices. However, it is locked for use on T-Mobile and Verizon only, with each vendor selling their own version. If the locked status isn't an issue, this device's color display, enterprise-grade security, password protection, VPN passthrough and advanced administrative controls make it a worthwhile option for organizations.
Keepgo Lifetime World Mobile Hotspot
Measuring 4 inches by 2.5 inches and weighing 3.2 ounces, Keepgo touts its Lifetime World Mobile Hotspot as the smallest hotspot device on the market, ideal for travel. This hotspot features a 4G connection speed and can support up to 15 devices in over 100 countries. Its data plan provides the following purchase options:
- 100 MB for $3.
- 1 GB for $24.
- 3 GB for $58.
- 5 GB for $79.
- 10 GB for $155.
- 25 GB for $250.
This makes it a cost-effective option for SMBs to purchase on a granular scale. These purchases never expire as long as they are refilled at least once a year for at least $3, thus reducing the risk of wasting data.
Netgear Nighthawk M6 Pro
Netgear's Nighthawk M6 Pro is one of the most advanced mobile hotspot devices on the market, with a price to match. While the hotspot is designed for AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile and will use their data plans, it is unlocked, giving customers the freedom to buy any data plan. This device is also one of the few that supports C-band 5G.
Netgear Nighthawk M1
The Nighthawk M1 is a scaled-down, less expensive version of the Nighthawk M6. This hotspot uses Wi-Fi 5, supports up to 20 devices and has a 13-hour continuous battery life. It also includes C-band 5G, an Ethernet port and an external antenna port for a third of the cost of the M6.
Orbic Speed 5G UW
Verizon customers can consider the Orbic Speed 5G UW. Although locked to Verizon, it offers connectivity for up to 30 devices and supports C-band 5G, claiming to be the only hotspot that works with Verizon's 5G.
Simo Solis 5G
The Solis 5G features Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, 15 connections for external devices and 24 hours of battery life. It also doubles as a power bank. Customers can choose from lifetime, daily, monthly or GB data plans. The lifetime data plan has limitations such as not being exchangeable for a new plan.
Simo Solis Lite
Simo's Solis Lite is a lower-end version of the Solis 5G. While it is only 4G and Wi-Fi 4, the hotspot supports up to 10 connections, has a 16-hour battery life, doubles as a power bank and enables data usage monitoring.
Gary Olsen has worked in the IT industry since 1983 and holds a Master of Science in computer-aided manufacturing from Brigham Young University. He was on Microsoft's Windows 2000 beta support team for Active Directory from 1998 to 2000 and has written two books on Active Directory and numerous technical articles for magazines and websites.