Networking With Cellphones and Wireless Modems

Mobile tethering helps keep your devices connected when you're on the road

Internet connection with router

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Instead of connecting to a cable that serves as the network pipe, cellular modems communicate with the internet through cellphone towers. Using cell modems offers several benefits over other types of modems. With a cell modem, digital cellular service is faster than dial-up internet and internet access is available from any location that has a cellular signal. For some, cellular service can be cheaper than other forms of broadband internet service.

Types of Cell Modems

Current modems follow one of three form factors:

  • Built into cell phones: Supports connections in a setup known as tethering.
  • Portable cellular cards: These are network adapters that plug into computers, sometimes called aircards.
  • Cellular routers: These are portable network routers that contain built-in cellular modems.

For most non-corporate users, the built-in modems are the standard hardware.

Set up a Cellphone as a Wireless Modem

Cellular service providers sell service plans (called data plans) that authorize digital phones to work as wireless internet modems. When you subscribe to a data plan, verify that the service either allows for unlimited use or has a high bandwidth limit to avoid excessive charges. A cellphone cannot work as a modem unless a compatible service plan is in place.

Cellphones can connect to nearby devices with a USB cable or the Bluetooth wireless protocol. Although Bluetooth connections are slower than USB, many prefer the convenience of wireless if the computer supports it (most mobile devices support Wi-Fi). Both types provide sufficient bandwidth for most cellular links. Current-generation smartphones also support internet sharing by serving as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, thus freeing you from the need to carry compatible cables.

Companies that provide cell service usually provide the free software needed to set up cellphones as wireless modems and manage the connection. Install the software on the computer to be used for tethering according to the provider's instructions.

Modern Android and iOS phones don't need special software. Portable hotspot capability is included in the mobile operating system. Use this capability to set up personal hotspots on Android and iOS.

Set up Cellular Cards and Routers

Cellular cards and routers function the same as traditional types of network adapters and broadband routers. Aircards plug into a computer USB port (or through a PCMCIA slot), while cell routers accept either Ethernet or Wi-Fi connections. Various manufacturers sell these cards and routers.

Limitations of Cell Modem Networking

Although network speeds have increased, cell connections to the internet typically offer slower data rates than other forms of broadband internet, sometimes below 1 Mbps.

Internet providers may enforce limits on the daily or monthly data usage of their cellular service. If you don't have an unlimited data plan, exceeding these bandwidth quotas results in high fees and possibly termination of service. Most cellphone data providers, however, slow down the speed of the service after the user reaches a specified limit, rather than charge extra fees.