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Tethering explained - all you need to know

11th April 2017

Tethering explained

With Wi-Fi hotspots growing more ubiquitous by the day, the need for tethering has diminished somewhat in recent times. But it remains a valuable resource for those looking to work on the go. So what exactly is tethering? How do you go about tethering? And what kind of tethering service do the UK networks provide?

What is tethering?

Tethering is the term used for hooking a laptop or any other Wi-Fi-enabled device to a smartphone and using the latter’s mobile network connection to connect to the internet.

How does tethering work?

When tethering, a phone essentially becomes a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. You’ve probably seen that term, or something similar, used as a more descriptive replacement for tethering. Personal Hotspot is often the term you’ll find in the settings screen of your smartphone.

If you’ve ever been in a public location, such as a train, and discovered someone’s phone listed as an available Wi-Fi hotspot, it means that phone is set up for tethering.

Tethering works by forming a local connection between a laptop (to use the most common example) and a mobile phone. That connection can be a physical one in the form of a USB cable, or wireless through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. These days, wireless is the more common method.

What are the advantages of tethering?

While Wi-Fi hotspots are now incredibly common across the developed world, we’re still far from the point of universal wireless internet coverage. Wherever there is no Wi-Fi connection - be it a holiday property, public transport, or a remote location where no physical lines exist - tethering can often be the most convenient way to connect a laptop or tablet to the internet.

At other times, tethering can offer a faster and more reliable internet connection than standard Wi-Fi. This is often the case in urban areas where 4G performance is strong while the nearest public Wi-Fi hotspot is oversubscribed or just plain slow.

There’s also the matter of security, with many public Wi-Fi hotspots being inherently insecure. A correctly set up tethered connection (tip: always choose the ‘WPA2’ option), on the other hand, essentially grants you your own password-protected network.

What are the disadvantages of tethering?

Generally speaking, a tethered internet connection will be slower than a regular internet connection. Even the very best and most up to date 4G services can’t compete with a good Wi-Fi hotspot in terms of pure performance - though that could well change with the arrival of 5G from 2020.

There’s also the cost of tethering to consider. Just because you have a generous data allowance on your mobile contract, it doesn’t necessarily mean that tethering will be covered by it (see below). Even if it is, you can quickly burn through that allowance when tethering, as browsing the internet on your laptop tends to consume a lot more data than browsing directly on your phone. This is because you’ll likely be loading up full desktop web pages rather than their data-sipping mobile equivalents.

Finally, wireless tethering tends to take a lot out of your smartphone’s battery. Maintaining a constant and intensive connection to the internet, and also to your tethered device, consumes a lot more power than regular smartphone tasks.

How to activate tethering

The good news is that the tethering feature is readily built in to and supported by most handsets. 

On Android just go to the settings screen, select the ‘More’ option under Wireless & Networks, then depending on what phone you’re using the wording for the next bit might vary, but there should be a tethering option by one name or another. Other possibilities include ‘mobile network sharing’ and ‘portable hotspot.’

Whatever it’s called on your handset of choice find it and tap it, then you’ll be able to choose between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB tethering. For USB tethering you will of course need to have connected your handset to whatever device you want to share its connection with via USB cable, at which point it should be a one-tap setup.

For Bluetooth tethering you’ll have to pair the two devices by following the onscreen instructions and for Wi-Fi tethering you’ll have to enter a network name and password, then enable Wi-Fi on the device which you want to share with, select the network you’ve just set up and enter the password.

The process on an iPhone is very similar, the only real difference is where you’ll find the tethering option. In this case you once again head to the settings screen, but then select ‘General’, then ‘Network’ and finally ‘Portable Hotspot.’

What tethering services do the UK networks provide?

Whether you can tether or not, and to what extent, depends on the network you’re on and the specific contract you’re signed up to. Each of the four major UK networks takes its own approach to tethering.

EE and Vodafone offer the fewest stipulations (i.e. if you have the data allowance, you can tether with it), Three offers a couple of exceptions and stipulations, and O2 technically supports tethering but actively discourages it.

Here’s what EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 have to say about tethering:

EE: "Tethering is included in your plan as part of your data allowance.

“The plan you purchased will have a data allowance which you can use to access the internet on your phone, use apps on your phone or use your phone as a portable hotspot to tether.”

Three: "You can use Personal Hotspot on all our current Advanced Pay Monthly phone and SIM plans. This included Pay Monthly plans taken out or upgraded since March 2014, and SIM plans taken out or upgraded since July 2014, but doesn’t include our Essential plans.

"Personal Hotspot isn’t available on Pay As You Go at the moment.

“If you have all-you-can-eat data, you’ll have a separate Personal Hotspot allowance. If you don’t, you can use Personal Hotspot from your standard data allowance.”

Vodafone: “Sharing your device’s data connection through a personal hotspot or by tethering will use up your data allowance. Providing you don’t exceed your data allowance, there’ll be no additional cost.”

“However, if you exceed your monthly data allowance, you’ll pay the standard rate for any extra data used.”

O2: "We don’t recommend using your phone as a personal hotspot. Sims on standard mobile tariffs are designed for calls, texts and general use, like daily browsing. They’re not made for being used as or in a mobile broadband device, as this eats up a lot of data.

"If you do need to use your smartphone as a personal hotspot on a one-off basis, you can share your data signal with other smartphones, laptops, iPads and tablets.

“When you use your phone as a hotspot, all devices will be using data from your phone. Depending on the amount of devices connected, and what they’re being used for, your data could be used up very quickly.”

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