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What is the difference between a mobile hotspot and tethering?

By Justin Stoltzfus | Last updated: May 5, 2022

A: Mobile hotspots and tethering services offer similar results for users, but they work a little bit differently.

A mobile hotspot is an offering by various telecom providers to provide localized wifi. With a hotspot, an adapter or device allows computer users to hook up to the internet from wherever they happen to be.

Mobile hotspots are advertised as an alternative to the traditional practice of logging onto a local area network or other wireless networks from a PC. Although mobile hotspots could be used for other kinds of devices, they are most commonly associated with laptop computers, because laptop computers are a type of "hybrid" device that may roam, but doesn’t usually come with built-in mobile Wi-Fi.

Tethering is slightly different. A tethering strategy involves connecting one device without Wi-Fi to another device that has Wi-Fi connectivity. For example, a user could tether a laptop to a smartphone through cabling or through a wireless connection. This would allow for using the computer on a connected basis.

When tethering involves a wireless setup, it can look and seem a lot like a mobile hotspot. In fact, though, there are some fairly significant differences between tethering and hotspots, both in design, and implementation.

First of all, while a mobile hotspot frequently serves multiple devices in a setup that looks like a local area network, tethering is a practice that has the connotation of being between only two devices.

In many cases, you may be able to tether more than one device to an iPhone or other device through wireless tethering, but the general idea of tethering is to take one unconnected device, as described above, and link it to one that does have connectivity.

In fact, the second point goes along with that. Wireless tethering is available with newer smartphones, but a conventional practice was to tether the two devices through a USB cord. That allowed the mobile device to charge, while acting as a conduit for connectivity to the external device, such as the laptop. Today, users are more likely to just tether wirelessly.

Another consideration and contrast between these two types of systems is speed. The tethering setup will typically be limited to the speed of the initial device—but modern hotspots can be rated for particular speeds of delivery. Again, that's because they serve as the wireless routers for a local area network that can include multiple devices, and because they are a deliberate carrier service with its own build, not just allowing one device to piggyback on another.

Another difference has to do with the contract models. Tethering will typically utilize an existing data contract for the device that is providing the connectivity. A hotspot gets billed by a carrier as a box plus a monthly fee to have that wireless model in place.

Finally, there is the concept of wireless security. Hotspots are seldom fully secure, and a tethered cable approach can be more secure in some cases.

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Networking Wireless and Mobile Personal Tech

Written by Justin Stoltzfus | Contributor, Reviewer

Profile Picture of Justin Stoltzfus

Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.

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