How to get the most out of mobile data when your broadband goes down

Mobile internet access

Has your broadband provider – such as BT – gone down, leaving you without the internet? Don’t worry, Wi-Fi isn’t the only wireless technology that allows you to access the internet.

Mobile internet access

Has your broadband provider – such as BT – gone down, leaving you without the internet? Don’t worry, Wi-Fi isn’t the only wireless technology that allows you to access the internet. Since the advent of 3G a decade ago, mobile networks have been able to provide reasonably fast data connections, and 4G provides significantly improved bandwidth, making it a viable alternative to a fixed broadband line as long as you can find a strong enough signal.

The bad news is that while 4G started rolling out in the UK towards the end of 2013, and all providers offer it as at least an option, coverage is still far from universal, particularly in areas away from the big cities. If you can get 4G, most providers charge a premium to use it, Three being the exception. You can connect to a 4G network from a recent smartphone, like the Samsung Galaxy S6 or Nokia Lumia 640, and a cellular tablet once you have an appropriate data plan and SIM card installed.

The situation is a little more complicated with the iPhone, though. The 5 was the first iPhone with 4G support, or at least the most common variant, LTE. While it supported the frequencies used for 4G in the US and some other places, it didn’t support those planned for use by 4G networks in the UK. This was sorted out by the time the iPhone 6 was released, and Apple smartphones can now connect to all of the major 4G services in the UK and across the world.

Regardless of the type of smartphone you own, you’ll find 4G offers faster speeds that you’re used to with 3G and can function as a Wi-Fi alternative as long as you don’t hit your data usage cap too soon.

Take the internet with you

You can access the internet while on the move very simply, using a 3G or 4G network, provided your smartphone has the capability to share its Internet connection as a personal hotspot.

You’ll need to check with your network provider that your contract includes support for tethering – the generic name for using a mobile’s data connection on another device. If your network contract doesn’t support tethering, or you don’t want to drain its battery using it as a hotspot, there is another option: a mobile hotspot.

This is (usually) a little black box that allows multiple devices to share a connection to a 3G or 4G network. They can be bought on contract from mobile operators, just like smartphones can, at prices which vary according to the monthly data usage.

You can also buy an unlocked SIM-free mobile hotspot from a third party, which can be used with any SIM, in the same way as an unlocked mobile phone. Third party hotspots start at around £40 and are made by the likes of D-Link, Huawei and TP-Link.

Features to look out for include the number of devices which can be simultaneously connected, support for 3G and 4G, and whether or not you can use the hotspot’s battery to charge your smartphone or tablet device.

A less flexible, though physically smaller, option is a USB dongle. Like Wi-Fi hotspots, these are usually provided free of charge by network operators in return for signing up to a monthly contract. You plug the dongle, which is about the same size as a USB flash drive, into your laptop to get online via the operator’s 3G or 4G network.

If you find you regularly need to connect your laptop to the Internet while you’re on the go, then it’s a good option.

Share your internet with Personal Hotspot

Personal Hotspot enables your iPhone’s internet connection to be shared with other devices. The connection can be shared over USB to a Mac or a PC, and wirelessly over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to other devices.

Up to five devices can be connected to the hotspot at the same time. Personal Hotspot has been a feature of iOS for a long time, but you should check with your network whether your tariff allows its use. The most flexible tariffs impose no restrictions on it, but some limit how much data it can use to just a portion of your allowance, while others don’t allow it at all – although you may be able to unlock it for an extra charge.

In iOS 9, it’s even easier to connect to Personal Hotspot from other devices running that system version, and from Macs running OS X 10.10 or higher. Those devices can connect to the hotspot without needing its Wi-Fi password at all.

They only need to be signed into the same iCloud account as your iPhone to recognise that a nearby Instant Hotspot, as it’s known, belongs to you. This doesn’t exclude family and friends from borrowing your internet connection – they can connect to the hotspot using traditional methods.

How to get a device online using Wi-Fi

1. Instant Hotspot

Macs with OS X 10.10 or higher and other iOS 9 devices, when signed into the same iCloud account as your iPhone, can use your hotspot without a password.

Click the Wi-Fi icon on the Mac’s menu bar or open Settings > Wi-Fi on iOS. The hotspot is listed in a separate group above others, along with connection and power details, so you don’t even need to unlock the iPhone.

2. Connect other devices

On other Wi-Fi devices, select your hotspot’s name from the list of nearby networks. You’ll need to provide its Wi-Fi password, which you can find under Settings > Personal Hotspot on your iPhone (you can tap it to change it if you like).

The network adopts your iPhone’s name, which itself can be changed under Settings > General > About > Name.

3. Check data usage

You may want to monitor data usage, especially if your tariff has a limited amount of data in each billing period. Many networks tell how much you’ve used via their website, but you can also view a running total under Settings > Mobile Data > Mobile Data Usage. Tap System Services (at the very bottom) to see how much data Personal Hotspot has used.

How to get a Mac online

1. Enable Hotspot

In the Settings app, you may already see Personal Hotspot in the top group of items, between ‘Mobile Data’ and ‘Carrier’. If it isn’t there, tap Mobile Data and it should be between Data Roaming and SIM applications.

Tap it to see its two settings. The first is a switch that turns on the hotspot (doing so also adds the item between ‘Mobile’ and ‘Carrier’).

2. Connecting your Mac

With the hotspot turned on, the simplest way to get your Mac online is to connect it to your iPhone using a Lightning-to-USB cable. The iPhone will emit its usual chime sound, and the Mac should say it has found a new network interface.

The iPhone’s status bar should turn blue, double in height, and display the number of devices using the hotspot in its bottom half.

3. Test the connection

Visit a website on your Mac. If this stalls or says you aren’t online, go to the Network pane in System Preferences. ‘iPhone USB’ should be listed on the left with a green dot and ‘Connected’ next to it.

If other active network connections are above it, click the cog at the foot of the list, choose Set Service Order, and drag iPhone USB to the top so it is used whenever it’s available.

How to get a device online using Bluetooth

1. Become discoverable

Bluetooth devices need to be paired with your iPhone to use Personal Hotspot. On the iPhone, turn on Personal Hotspot (see step 1 above) and then go to Settings > Bluetooth and stay there.

On a Mac, open System Preferences, click the Bluetooth icon and wait for nearby Bluetooth devices to be listed. Turning on Bluetooth should be similar on other devices.

2. Make the connection

Your iPhone will be listed using the name that appears in Settings > General > About. When it appears on a Mac, it’ll have a Pair button next to it.

On other devices, you may have to tap it or use buttons to select it. Whatever the method, after you initiate the pairing process, a prompt on the iPhone will ask you to confirm this one-time pairing request. Tap Pair.

3. Connecting in future

After being paired, your iPhone and the other device will remember each other. When you return to the iPhone’s Bluetooth settings, the paired device will be listed even when it’s out of range.

You’ll see something similar on the other device. To get the other device online, switch on Bluetooth both on it and on the iPhone, then tap the other device’s name to reconnect them.

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