Networking with Cell Phones and Wireless Modems

Getting and staying connected via cellular networks

Vodafone LTE Router and Modem (CeBIT 2011)
Getty Images

Home networks use modems to connect to the Internet. Each Internet service utilizes its own type of modem. For example,

  • dial-up and DSL modems connect to the home phone line
  • cable modems connect to the home cable TV line
  • fiber optic modems connect to fiber optic cables installed in the home
  • wireless modems

What Are Cell Modems?

Cellular modems are an alternative to these other types of network modems. Cell modems are a kind of wireless modem that enable computers and other devices for Internet access. Instead of connecting to some cable that serves as the network pipe, cellular modems communicate over wireless links to the Internet via cell phone towers. Using cell modems offers several benefits over other types of modems:

  • digital cellular service is faster than dial-up Internet
  • cellular Internet access can be used while traveling and from any location the cell signal is available
  • for some, cell service may be cheaper than other forms of broadband Internet service

Types of Cell Modems

Three main types of cellular modems exist for computer networking:

  • cell phones - using phones as modems to enable Internet access on computers, sometimes called tethering
  • cellular cards - portable network adapters that plug into computers, sometimes called aircards
  • cellular routers - portable network routers that contain built-in cellular modems

Setting Up Cell Phones as Wireless Modems

The specific steps to set up tethering depend on the model of cell phone being used, but the same general process applies in all cases:

  • set up the phone for Internet service
  • connect the phone to the computer
  • install appropriate phone connection manager software on the computer

Cellular providers sell service plans (normally called data plans) that enable a digital phone to work as a wireless Internet modem. When subscribing to a data plan, ensure that the service allows for either unlimited use or has a high bandwidth limit to avoid excessive charges. A cell phone cannot work as a modem unless a compatible service plan is in place.

Cell phones can connect to other nearby devices using either a USB cable or via Bluetooth wireless. Although Bluetooth connections are much slower than USB, many prefer the convenience of wireless if their computer supports it (as nearly all mobile devices do). Both types provide sufficient bandwidth for most cellular links.

Companies that provide cell service also provide the free software needed to set up cell phones as wireless modems and manage their connections. Simply install the software on the computer to be used for tethering according to the provider's instructions.

Setting Up Cellular Cards and Routers

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

Limitations of Cell Modem Networking

Although their network speeds have increased substantially in the past several years, cell connections to the Internet typically offer somewhat slower data rates than other forms of broadband Internet, sometimes even below 1 Mbps. When tethered, a cell phone cannot receive voice calls. 

Internet providers typically enforce strict limits on the daily or monthly data utilization of their cellular service. Exceeding these bandwidth quotas results in high fees and sometimes even termination of service.