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How do personal hotspots work for remote work?

A personal hotspot can be a valuable element of a remote work strategy, but IT teams must understand how they work and what management challenges they present.

For organizations that plan to support remote work long term, it's important to understand how a personal hotspot works as a connectivity option for workers.

A mobile hotspot, also known as a Wi-Fi hotspot, converts a 3G, 4G or 5G signal to a Wi-Fi signal and vice versa. These can come in the form of standalone hotspot devices or, more commonly, personal hotspots, which are available as a feature on smartphones such as iPhones and Android devices.

The predominant use case for a personal hotspot is to connect to the internet by tethering a device. A hotspot is most valuable for employees who travel frequently because it enables them to work from anywhere while avoiding the security risks of public Wi-Fi access. It's also possible to connect multiple devices to a hotspot via a Wi-Fi network.

Using a personal hotspot for remote work comes with benefits and, of course, risks. The most significant advantage of a hotspot for remote work is that employees have pocket-sized backup connectivity. Take, for example, an employee who works remotely in an area prone to bad weather at certain times of the year. When they lose power and internet access, they can switch to their Wi-Fi hotspot to send out a Slack message or email about their power loss.

However, there are many reasons why most workers should not use personal hotspots as their primary connectivity source, and organizations should handle some key management aspects when allowing employees to use them for backup connectivity.

4 things IT should keep in mind with a personal hotspot policy

Make it clear to users that hotspots aren't meant to replace a full-time internet connection.

Whether an organization enables employees to use personal hotspots on their corporate-owned smartphones or as part of a BYOD program, there are several details that IT teams must discuss and assess. IT should consider how personal hotspots fit into a mobile strategy, as well as concerns around data limits, power consumption and security.

1. Personal hotspots must be part of the mobile strategy

Personal hotspots aren't part of every corporate or personal data plan, so a mobile strategy must cover hotspots, including costs or BYOD reimbursements, data limits and security. This also means that IT must supplement mobile device management (MDM) policies with additional requirements to govern hotspot usage.

Personal hotspots aren't standard for every employee's corporate device in most organizations. Executives, salespeople and others who spend time traveling are the usual candidates for hotspots. While the pandemic might have altered this use case for some, IT should use this time to audit personal hotspots running on corporate mobile devices.

2. Data limits for corporate-owned and BYOD endpoints

Data limits should be a consideration with personal hotspots on both corporate-owned devices and in BYOD scenarios. Make it clear to users that hotspots aren't meant to replace a full-time internet connection. Corporate devices pull from a finite supply of data that the organization purchases and allocates to authorized users.

Hotspots running on BYOD smartphones consume cellular data from the employee's data plan. An organization might have a generous BYOD or internet reimbursement, but the employee will still find their phone's data throttled, even if they have an unlimited data plan.

3. Power consumption and mobile hotspots

It's easy for users to keep their devices charged when working out of a home office. But for users who are on the go more often, power consumption is a concern. Remind users to avoid using their hotspots in situations where they won't be able to easily replenish their battery life.

4. Security considerations for hotspots

The mobile device security basics of updating a device's operating system, enabling mobile firewalls and using a VPN are still relevant when using personal hotspots.

Setting up a personal hotspot for remote work

The 'Personal Hotspot' screen in iOS.
Figure 1. Select Allow Others to Join to start using a Wi-Fi hotspot on an iPhone.

Personal hotspots aren't available with every device and phone plan. AT&T and T-Mobile offer hotspot usage on many of their plans but might throttle data speed after a certain usage threshold. Some Verizon plans require an additional fee to use the personal hotspot feature. If necessary, personal device users can go to their carrier's customer portal to upgrade their phone plan to use their device as a hotspot.

Depending on an organization's MDM policies, users might not have sufficient rights to set up and configure a personal hotspot independently. In this situation, authorized users would have to go to their organization's MDM portal to request a mobile hotspot be added to their phone or tablet.

Setting up a hotspot on an iPhone

To manually set up a personal hotspot on an iPhone, navigate to Settings > Personal Hotspot (Figure 1). Then, Select Allow Others to Join. There's also the option to change the hotspot password.

The 'Network & internet' screen in Android.
Figure 2. Hotspot settings are available under Network & internet on Android devices.

Setting up a hotspot on an Android device

To manually set up a personal hotspot on an Android phone, go to Settings > Network & internet > Hotspot & tethering (Figure 2). The location of this setting might vary based on the Android version. Then, tap on Wi-Fi hotspot and toggle it on. This screen also provides the option to set a password for added security.

Will Kelly is a technology writer, content strategist and marketer. He has written extensively about the cloud, DevOps and enterprise mobility for industry publications and corporate clients and worked on teams introducing DevOps and cloud computing into commercial and public sector enterprises.

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