Mobile phones are used for a lot more than just voice calls and text messages these days and a great deal of the extra functionality requires an active Internet connection. For most consumers, the default is to subscribe to a wireless data plan via 3G or 4G with their preferred wireless provider, but using Wi-Fi could be a more cost-effective and potentially more versatile method to explore. This is true both for cell phones wishing to connect to an existing Wi-Fi access point, as well as for using the cell phone as a mobile hotspot to connect other Wi-Fi enabled devices like tablets and notebook PCs.
Connecting a Cell Phone with Wi-Fi
By and large, modern smartphones are now equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity as a standard feature. This is true of all the iPhone devices, all Android smartphones, newer BlackBerry phones, and any number of other devices.
It is a common misconception among consumers that their carriers will charge them if they connect their smartphones to an available Wi-Fi hotspot. This is not true, as discussed on the Android Enthusiasts Q&A board. Connecting a mobile phone to a Wi-Fi access point is really not that different from connecting any other connected device to the same Wi-Fi access point. While the exact mechanisms used will vary from platform to platform, the steps taken are usually quite similar:
- Turn on the Wi-Fi radio via the cell phone's settings or quick access menu.
- Locate the desired access point from the list of SSIDs (network names) that the phone detects.
- Connect to that access point, entering the required security password as necessary.
Even if a cell phone does not have a service contract with a wireless provider, it can generally still connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi. In effect, this allows an iPhone to gain the same level of functionality as an iPod touch, for example.
Splash Pages and Free Access Points
When connecting to the Wi-Fi access point at home or at a friend's house, the experience will be much the same as when connecting using a laptop. However, when using a "free" access point at a coffee shop, library or other public location, there is oftentimes what is known as a splash page before full Internet access is granted.
In hotels, conference centers and select other types of businesses, users can oftentimes encounter paid Wi-Fi access points. Upon connecting, the user similarly directed to a splash page where he or she will be asked for payment information in addition to accepting terms and conditions. In the case of hotel Wi-Fi, this may be as simple as a last name and room number, but other access points may ask for credit card details directly. Using a wireless Internet connection on the cell phone via one of these paid portals is not free, though the charges do not come from the cell phone carrier.
Using a Smartphone as a Mobile Hotspot
It is oftentimes possible to take the existing 3G/4G wireless connection of a smartphone and convert that into a Wi-Fi mobile hotspot that other Wi-Fi enabled devices can access to get on the Internet. This is commonly known as tethering and it can be very handy. However, using a cell phone as a mobile hotspot can come at a cost. As explained by PC World's Sarah Jacobsson Purewal, some carriers can charge as much as $50 per month for tethering plans. This varies significantly from carrier to carrier and can even be different within one particular carrier.
Verizon Wireless, for example, allows cell phone users to tether within their Share Everything plans, but the usage is limited within the data bucket of that monthly plan. Overage charges are $15 per gigabyte. However, if you are still on the older usage-based data plan, the mobile hotspot feature on a phone must be activated for an additional $20 per month per device. The rates are similar with AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. This feature can usually be activated in a phone's settings menu, usually in the same area as the Wi-Fi or wireless data settings. Be sure that you are fully aware of how you will be charged before you decide to activate it.
Wireless Internet Is Everywhere
With nearly every smartphone equipped with Wi-Fi capabilities and the proliferation of free Wi-Fi access points all across the country, it is easier than ever to stay connected. Coffee shops, retail stores, public libraries, government buildings, college campuses and casual restaurants can all have Wi-Fi hotspots available for the public to use and getting connected with a smartphone is very easy. This can help to conserve data costs and is particularly useful when traveling out of town or out of country. The fact that you can connect laptops and tablet devices to the Internet via smartphone tethering provides even greater flexibility. There aren't many places where it's truly impossible for smartphone users to gain access to the Internet anymore.