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What is a hotspot, and how does it work?

A hotspot is a wireless access point that allows users to connect to the internet. Hotspots come in various types, from mobile hotspot devices you can carry wherever you go to public Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and hotels. This article will cover everything you need to know about hotspots, including their types, pros, cons, and how to use them safely.

What is a hotspot, and how does it work?

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is a hotspot?

A hotspot is a broad term that defines a device or a physical location that provides internet access to users. Hotspots can be public (accessible to thousands of users) or personal (only used by you).

Coffee shops, train stations, and other public places often offer public hotspots to customers. For example, people may want to work on projects from a cafe or read the news while waiting for their flight. If the location offers internet access, it becomes more appealing to many customers.

A hotspot is also called a Wi-Fi hotspot because users typically connect to it without cables or wires.

Hotspot types

Each hotspot type comes with certain features and has its pros and cons. Plus, some are considered more secure than others. Let’s look at each type in more detail.

Public hotspot

A public hotspot is any public Wi-Fi you can connect to in a public place (e.g., a coffee shop, train station, or airport). Most of us will regularly connect to public hotspots to save cellular data and stay connected to the internet for free.

However, a public hotspot may not always be available or reliable. Additionally, wireless local area networks may present security risks that users might not be aware of. A public wireless network may attract hackers and snoopers, so it’s important to stay cautious — and maybe even consider alternative, safer hotspot types.

Mobile hotspot

A mobile hotspot is a wireless access point that allows users to access the internet on the go. You can create a mobile hotspot using a dedicated personal hotspot device or a device with cellular service (like your smartphone).

Mobile hotspot device

A mobile hotspot device is a small, portable router you can use to create a wireless internet connection. Dedicated mobile hotspot devices are known as pocket or travel routers. A mobile hotspot device allows users to gain access to the internet on multiple devices without connecting to public Wi-Fi.

Mobile hotspot devices convert cellular 3G and 4G signals to Wi-Fi, creating mobile wireless networks that multiple users or devices can access simultaneously. Typically, these users must be within 10 meters of the portable hotspot to establish a wireless connection.

You can buy hotspot devices compatible with Wi-Fi-enabled devices from most wireless carriers. These portable hotspots cost anywhere from $20 to $400 for an advanced model. The devices are typically 4G LTE, meaning you can enjoy a fast internet connection (4G LTE is 10 times faster than 3G).

To start using your mobile hotspot device, you will need a hotspot data plan, typically offered by cellular providers (rather than an internet service provider). You can get plans that offer unlimited data, but they may come at a higher price.

Phone hotspot

Phone hotspot is called tethering. Tethering is when you use a mobile device with cellular service to create a Wi-Fi connection that other devices can use.

Tethering turns a mobile device (e.g., a smartphone) into a portable Wi-Fi router, allowing you to share your data with other users.

You can turn most modern iPhone and Android phones into mobile hotspots by changing a few settings. Some users may have to contact their cellular device provider to activate this feature, but many providers offer it free of charge.

Remember that using your smartphone as a hotspot can drastically reduce your phone’s battery life. That’s why users may purchase a dedicated mobile hotspot device instead.

How does a hotspot work?

Because several hotspot types exist, how a particular one works will depend on its type.

Public hotspot

Public hotspots use a router to create a wireless network that devices can connect to. The router is connected to the internet through a wired connection like a cable modem or DSL line.

Mobile hotspot

Mobile hotspots connect to 4G and 5G cellular networks (like mobile phones). The hotspot receives the cellular signal and converts it to a Wi-Fi signal. Devices nearby can connect to the mobile if they have the SSID (service set identifier or hotspot’s name) and password.

Multiple users can connect to the same hotspot to gain access to the internet. However, more traffic means a slower connection, so you should avoid too many users at once.

How fast are hotspots?

How fast a Wi-Fi hotspot is will depend on several factors, including the hotspot type and provider.

Public hotspot

If you’re connected to a free public Wi-Fi hotspot, you’re probably not the only one. Free Wi-Fi attracts people like moths to a flame. However, the more users connect to a wireless network, the more likely the connection will be slow, unreliable, and unstable. Free Wi-Fi providers often limit the bandwidth for each user, resulting in slower speeds and interruptions.

Slow Wi-Fi is common in coffee shops, airports, train stations, public libraries, or any other location with a free WiFi network accessible to many users. If you’re looking for a fast internet connection, you may need to consider other options.

Mobile hotspot

Portable hotspots can deliver much better speeds than public hotspots because you’re not sharing the Wi-Fi access with hundreds or thousands of other users.

How fast your mobile hotspot is will depend on several factors, including the device you’re using, the cellular network provider, how far from the nearest cell tower you are, and even geographical landmarks in your area.

Most mobile hotspots will reach speeds of around 30-40 Mbps. 5G hotspots can reach much faster speeds (up to 1,000 Mbps in some urban areas where millimeter-wave 5G is available).

Why use a mobile hotspot?

A mobile hotspot provides a convenient way to connect to the internet when you’re working, traveling, or can’t access a secure public Wi-Fi network. With a mobile hotspot, you can go online from anywhere as long as cellular service is available. Here are some of the reasons to consider a mobile hotspot.

Portable and convenient

A personal mobile hotspot lets you connect to the internet even when no Wi-Fi is available. Mobile hotspots are typically small and portable, making it easy to take them with you wherever you go — even abroad.

Faster connection than public wireless networks

Public Wi-Fi networks often limit the bandwidth of each user so that everyone gets a fair share. As a result, your mobile hotspot connection is likely to be faster than a public hotspot connection.

More secure than public Wi-Fi

Most public Wi-Fi hotspots don’t take sufficient security precautions to protect users from cyberattacks. Using a personal mobile hotspot device means you can take the necessary steps to keep it safe. You’re taking control of your digital security into your own hands.

Affordable price

It is possible to find affordable mobile hotspot devices and hotspot data plans. You’ll have to research to find the right hotspot data plan for you, but it shouldn’t be a problem with so many available options.

How to protect yourself when using a Wi-Fi hotspot

Knowing how to stay safe while using hotspots is important, especially if you’re connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Free, public hotspots are riskier than private hotspots because they are often easier for cybercriminals to access. These networks don’t usually have good security and firewalls to stop cybercriminals and may present serious security threats.

However, you should take precautionary steps even when using your own hotspot device to ensure no one can intercept your connection. Here are some tips on how to safely use hotspots.

Create a strong password

When using a mobile hotspot device or your smartphone to create a wireless connection, make sure you set a strong, long, unique password. A strong password will prevent malicious parties from connecting to or breaking into your mobile hotspot.

A strong password should contain at least 12 characters, a mix of letters and numbers, and a few special characters. Don’t reuse passwords you’ve used elsewhere because that could put you and your data at risk.

If you need a convenient way to manage and create passwords, consider using a password manager like NordPass. It makes password management easy and efficient by keeping all your passwords and sensitive information in one secure vault.

Use strong, reliable encryption

Encryption scrambles your data, making it unreadable to unauthorized people — even if they somehow intercept your device. Ensure your mobile or personal hotspot uses a strong, reliable encryption protocol to keep your data safe and secure.

Not all mobile devices support all encryption protocols, so the options available will depend on your device. However, most mobile devices allow you to set up WPA2 or another encryption protocol to increase your hotspot security.

Use a VPN

A VPN encrypts your connection and protects your data from hackers, snoopers, and other cyber threats. Connecting to a public hotspot without a VPN could expose your data on the Wi-Fi network. Hackers target unsecured networks and may intercept your information, including sensitive data like passwords and credit card details.

With a VPN, your sensitive data is protected with a layer of encryption, making it inaccessible and unreadable to cybercriminals. It’s a smart way to strengthen your digital security, whether you’re using a public or a personal hotspot.

Additionally, some VPN providers offer extra features to take your cybersecurity further. For example, Threat Protection (a NordVPN feature) protects you from malicious sites, trackers, and annoying ads.


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