What Is A Personal Hotspot?

Yesterday’s announcement that Verizon will start selling the iPhone in February includes one new iPhone feature, the built-in personal hotspot. What is a personal hotspot and what benefit does it provide?

The personal hotspot feature on smartphones provides a way to share an Internet connection with other devices. If you are familiar with WiFi access points, the personal hotspot software basically turns a smartphone into a WiFi access point. You may have also heard of MiFis, which are basically the same as a personal hotspot except that they are dedicated to sharing Internet access, where as a smartphone has multiple functions, including send and receiving phone calls.

The benefit of a personal hotspot is that it enables Internet sharing using the nearly ubiquitous WiFi wireless technology. Any device that has a WiFi radio can access a personal hotspot, once it is configured. There are, however, some constraints with personal hotspots that don’t exist with WiFi access points.

All personal hotspots and MiFis limit the number of simultaneous connections that it supports, and usually that number is five devices. There are a number of reasons for this constraint, ranging from performance to the fact that the carriers want to limit the number of devices that use the same connection to their network.

Another constraint is that the data transfered between a personal hotspot and the Internet may count as part of a smartphone’s data plan. For example, if your plan has a 5G limit, the data transfered while your smartphone is acting as a personal hotspot counts towards that limit.

Mobile providers may provide additional data allotments for personal hotspots, or they may count personal hotspot use separate from a regular smartphone data plan. In these cases the provider usually charges an additional fee for using the personal hotspot. You have to sign up for the carrier’s personal hotspot service, and pay a monthly fee, before the software will even work.

Finally, when the personal hotspot software is running it can limit some functions of the smartphone. Verizon users need to know that because of limitations with the CDMA technology, you will not be able to send or receive phone calls while the personal hotspot feature is enabled. Smartphones running on GSM technology such as from AT&T and T-Mobile usually do not have the same limitation.

The key thing to keep in mind is that for most smartphones and carriers, personal hotspots are not only a feature of the phone, but also a service that the carrier provides. As such, your smartphone needs to be capable to act as a personal hotspot and you need to subscribe to the carrier’s service. If you are interested in using a smartphone as a personal hotspot, talk with the carrier to find which of their phones support it, how much it costs, and what are the constraints for using a personal hotspot on their network.