Get Internet In Your Car With a Mobile Hotspot

Accessing the Internet from Your Car

get internet in car mobile hotspot
Getting the Internet in your car with a mobile hotspot allows multiple devices to connect at once. Todor Tsevetkov / E+ / Getty

While there is more than one way to get Internet in your car, buying a dedicated hotspot device is the easiest and most reliable option available. While these hotspot devices aren't specifically designed for automotive use, their inherent portability means that these gadgets can be used in your car just as easily as anywhere else. And since you can usually plug these devices into a 12 volt accessory outlet for power, you don't even need to worry about the battery going dead.

In some cases, you may not even need dedicated hardware to get Internet in your car from a mobile hotspot. That may seem counterintuitive, but the fact is that most modern smartphones are capable of creating ad hoc wireless networks and functioning as hotspots. The availability of this feature does vary from one provider to the next, so it may or may not actually be an option.

If you're in the market for a new car, or a newer used car, you also have the option of looking for one with OEM Internet connectivity. These vehicles actually feature built-in hotspot hardware, although a separate data plan is necessary to actually make them work.

What is a Hotspot?

Traditionally, hotspots have been non-private Wi-Fi networks. There’s no real difference between a home- or business-based Wi-Fi network and a hotspot, except for the fact that hotspots are used by the public.

Some hotspots are free, and others require a user to take some action before accessing the network.

Some businesses provide access to their hotspot if you make a purchase, and other hotspots can be accessed by paying a fee to the company that operates it. Mobile hotspots are basically the same thing, but they are, by definition, mobile.

The main difference between a mobile hotspot and a traditional hotspot is that mobile hotspots are typically secured, since freely sharing a mobile data plan with the public at large would become extremely expensive very quickly.

However, some hotspots allow anyone in the area to connect, use their own login information, and pay for their own data.

These kinds of mobile hotspot devices are available from major cellular service providers like Verizon and AT&T, but options are also available from companies that focus entirely on mobile Internet. Each offers its own benefits and drawbacks, in terms of features and network availability, but they all perform the same basic function.

Some cell phones can perform this same function by creating an ad hoc Wi-Fi network, in a process known as tethering, which can also be performed by some laptops and tablets that have built-in cellular data connections.

Providers have gone back and forth over the years on whether or not they allow tethering, or whether they charge an extra fee, so it's important to check out the details of any mobile Internet contract before you sign it.

Why Would Anyone Need the Internet in Their Car?

Since mobile hotspots can provide Internet access to nearly any Wi-Fi enabled device, there are a number of useful applications for the technology. Some of the ways to use a mobile hotspot include:

The idea of accessing the Internet from the road might seem frivolous at first, and it’s not really necessary on short jaunts, but it does have real utility on long commutes and road trips. Like in-car DVD players, video games, and other entertainment systems, mobile hotspots are really more about the passengers than the driver, and there are almost endless ways to use the Internet in your car.

What Are the Different Mobile Hotspot Options?

Until recently, the options for getting Internet access in your car were pretty limited. Today, you can choose from options like:

  • OEM hotspots
  • Dedicated devices
  • Cell phones
  • Laptops

OEM Initiatives

Several OEMs offer hotspot functionality, though the specifics differ from one case to another. BMW has a piece of hardware that is capable of creating a Wi-Fi network, but you need to add your own SIM card. This provides you with a little flexibility, and you can even take the hotspot with you when you get out of the vehicle.

Other OEMs, like Ford, allow you to plug your own Internet-connected device into their system, which will then create a Wi-Fi network for you. This also offers a great deal of flexibility, though you have to obtain a compatible device and service plan before it will work.

That guesswork is taken out of the equation by other OEMS, like Mercedes, who have partnered with mobile Internet service providers to provide comprehensive hotspot solutions.

DIY Wi-Fi Connectivity on the Go

Of course, you don’t need to rely on OEM systems to get Internet access in your car. Devices like Verizon’s MiFi work just as well on the road as they do at home, and most cell phone providers offer similar devices. There are also mobile Internet providers that offer personal hotspots that will function inside a vehicle if the local cellular signal strength is strong enough.

Tethering is also an option that is available to most people who have smartphones. Some service providers don’t officially support the practice, and others charge a fee if you want to unlock the functionality.

Others, like Verizon, have been forced to provide free tethering on certain plans. So while it’s possible to enable tethering on many phones with a little time and research, it’s a good idea to look into your service provider’s policies first. Just don't go over your data allowance binge-watching the latest Netflix series when you're stuck in traffic.

Laptops that have mobile Internet access aren’t as mobile as dedicated hotspot devices and cellular phones, but they can often be used to create ad hoc Wi-Fi networks. A 12 volt adapter or inverter can take care of the power needs, though it is a good idea to verify that the vehicle’s alternator is up to that task. It’s also a good idea to make sure that the mobile service provider doesn’t frown on Internet-sharing, just like with tethering your cellphone.