Networking With Cell Phones 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 cell-phone towers. Using cell modems offers several benefits over other types of modems:

  • Digital cellular service is faster than dial-up internet.
  • They provide internet access while you're traveling and from any location a cell signal is available.
  • For some people, cell service can be cheaper than other forms of broadband internet service.

Types of Cell Modems

Current modems follow one of three different form factors:

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

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

Setting Up a Cell Phone as a Wireless Modem

Cellular service providers sell service plans (typically called data plans) that authorize digital phones to work as wireless Internet modems. When you subscribe to a data plan, verify 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 with a USB cable or the Bluetooth wireless protocol. Although Bluetooth connections are much slower than USB, many prefer the convenience of wireless if their computers support them (as nearly all mobile devices do). 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 an octopus of compatible cables.

Companies that provide cell service also usually 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.

Modern Android and iOS phones don't even need special software — portable hotspot capability is baked into the mobile operating system. Check out our guides for setting up personal hotspots on Android and iOS for specific considerations and procedures.

Setting Up Cellular Cards and Routers

Cellular cards and routers function in the same way as other traditional types of network adapters and broadband routers. Aircards typically plug into a computer's USB port (or sometimes through a PCMCIA slot), 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.

Internet providers typically 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 sometimes even termination of service. Most cell phone data providers, however, now merely slow down the speed of their service after the user reaches a specified limit, rather than charge extra fees.