Complete Guide for Mobile Hotspots (Portable WiFi)

In today’s blog, we will discuss mobile hotspots, sometimes also referred as portable WiFi. We’ll talk about what they are, what they’re typically used for, and what features you should look for when buying one. We’ll also discuss specific brands that you might want to take a look at, in the United States as well as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Let’s get started.

Mobile hotspots (portable WiFi) provide high speed internet on-the-go, using a cellular connection as its backhaul in a mobile, portable form, typically small devices that are portable. These devices are also sometimes referred to as “Mi-Fi”, but this also refers to an actual brand name, so we will avoid the usage. In general a mobile hotspot is essentially a single-SIM Wi-Fi router (although advanced multi-SIM routers also exist, which we discuss below). It uses a single SIM card (like in your phone) to connect to the provider’s cellular network, while connecting to your devices via Wi-Fi. In fact, most smartphones today have an option to put the phone into “hotspot” mode, which turns your phone into a mobile personal hotspot. If you’re sitting out in the park with your phone and laptop, and suddenly need to use your laptop with an Internet connection, you can just set your phone in hotspot mode, and you will see a new wireless network appear in your laptop’s settings that you can then connect to and have high-speed Internet.

So why would anyone need a separate device to use as a mobile hotspot if you can just use your phone? It turns out there are a couple of reasons why this is not practical. A major reason is simply battery life. Using the hotspot mode on your phone places tremendous strain on the battery, and your battery will drain much more quickly. Also, a dedicated mobile hotspot uses much better antennas than your phone, which is especially important in remote locations with no wired Internet. Another nice thing about a dedicated mobile hotspot is that any data used does not come from your existing phone service – typically a separate account is set up for the device, which is very convenient for business users whose company reimburse the expense. And finally, mobile hotspots have significantly enhanced security and other important features that your smartphone can’t match. 

Use Cases

There are many use cases for using a mobile hotspot, and while you certainly (probably) know what you would use yours for, some of the other use cases are quite varied and may surprise you.

Aside from the first two use cases, the remaining applications really require something more sophisticated than a simple, single-SIM mobile hotspot. They require enterprise-grade multi-SIM mobile hotspots powered by SD-WAN with broadband bonding.

In these situations, the performance of the mobile hotspots really comes down to the advanced algorithms inside the device. With the right technology, such as SD-WAN with broadband bonding, previously unobtainable performance, such as supporting broadcast quality HD video, can be achieved even in the harshest environments.

  • Business Travelers
    • For businesspeople who travel for work, mobile hotspots are often a necessity. Publicly available Wi-Fi hotspots (in airports, hotels, coffee shops, etc.) are notoriously bad in terms of both security and performance, so a personal mobile hotspot makes a lot of sense even when there is public Wi-Fi available. In many situations, such as working while travelling or from a remote location, there may not be any other high-speed Internet available, so your mobile hotspot becomes essential.
  • Individual Consumers
    • Personal mobile hotspots are ideal for individual consumers as well. They can provide high-speed Wi-Fi connections for all the Wi-Fi-enabled devices in your RV or cabin in the woods, or your family station wagon while both on the road and parked at your final destination, be it beach, lake, park, mountains, or other. They won’t drain the battery on your smartphone, and should have enough juice to last all day.
  • Healthcare – Mobile Clinics & Ambulances
    • Enterprise-grade mobile hotspots can literally be a life saver in providing critical patient information and/or live phone or video connectivity from a moving ambulance or mobile clinic.
  • Broadcasting
    • Enterprise-grade mobile hotspots can also be used to broadcast live high-definition video from challenging or remote locations, or temporary filming sites.
  • Education
    • Remote learning sites, mobile libraries, books on wheels, and other educational sites can use hotspots to provide Internet access.
  • Retail
    • Hotspots can also be greatly useful for retail locations such as pop-up or temporary store locations or kiosks or booths. A hotspot can provide Internet access to support eCommerce and connect to inventory and shipping sites.
  • Other In-Vehicle Applications
    • How about when the use case is to provide Internet connectivity to moving vehicles? Using an enterprise-grade mobile hotspot allows law enforcement to stream live security footage while on-the-go. Trains, buses, and ships can use the hotspots to provide Wi-Fi Internet access to customers and also connect critical company infrastructure. Fire trucks and other first responders can maintain rock-solid Internet connectivity while en route or at their final location.

Features

So, what are the key features you should be concerned with when researching mobile hotspots? These are the areas you should pay special attention to:

  • Service provider – locked or unlocked
    • Many consumers will do best by adding a separate line for their hotspot using their current provider with a locked hotspot. Business travelers have more options, and could even consider an unlocked hotspot so they can connect to local networks more cost-effectively.
  • Size and weight
    • Most devices are quite compact – usually making them easily portable.
  • Battery life
    • Many models claim “up to 24” of battery life – which is not particular helpful. Depending on how hard you’re driving your hotspot, you may consider an external battery pack option and with that expect to get a solid full-day’s work (8-10 hours) out of a single charge.
  • Touchscreen display
    • Most of the below models have this, which is a nice convenience, but not critical since you shouldn’t be doing much configuration management with the device. More advanced models will manage the network automatically with minimal user intervention rendering a display with little value.
  • Cellular spectral bands used (Wireless specification 802.11)
    • Most importantly here is to make sure your hotspot communicates Wi-Fi with the later standards. Make sure it supports 802.11n or 802.11ac.
  • Number of supported devices
    • Usually hotspots support 10 to 20 devices, but occasionally you’ll see one that only supports 5 devices, which could be an issue if you’re providing Internet for a large family or group.
  • Advanced enterprise features
    • For many of the use cases listed above, a single-SIM hotspot simply does not have the bandwidth, reliability, or advanced features needed. Multi-SIM hotspots powered by SD-WAN with broadband bonding can provide these critical, enterprise functions, such as routing, firewalling, WAN aggregation, enhanced security and traffic engineering capabilities.

Best Mobile Hotspots Right Now

To come up with a manageable list of candidate mobile hotspots, I scoured scores of recent reviews and pulled out a handful of mobile hotspots that kept showing up over and over again. The best single review I came across was done by PCMag at The Best Mobile Hotspots of 2020. I’ve summarized some of their finding below, along with a couple additional hotspots for international travelling.

The following list comprises the “best of the best” mobile hotspots and should be part of your research before you buy. Note that unless otherwise stated, all these models are 4G LTE, dual-band, single-SIM, Wi-Fi devices. We discuss multi-sim mobile hotspots models later in the article.

AT&T – Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot Router

This mobile hotspot supports up to 20 devices, uses a 5040 mAh battery (up to 24 hours), weighs 8.5 ounces and measures 4.15 x 4.15 x 0.80 inches. It incorporates some of the fastest hotspot hardware available among single-SIM category, and has excellent access controls. The downsides are its weight and that it has no touchscreen interface – management via web portal only.

Sprint – MiFi 8000 Mobile Hotspot

This hotspot supports up to 15 devices, uses a 4400 mAh battery (up to 24 hours), weighs only 5.4 ounces and measures 4.45 x 2.79 x .74 inches. This unit has a 2.4” color touchscreen display user interface for configuration management.

Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L

Connects up to 15 devices with a 4400 mAh battery (up to 24 hours), weighs 5.4 ounces and measures 4.29 x 2.64 x .71 inches. This hotspot sports the fastest 4G LTE technologies along with a 2.4” color touchscreen display.

Verizon 5G MiFi M1000 Hotspot

The only 5G mobile hotspot on the list, the M1000 supports up to 16 devices with a 4400 mAh battery (5-7 hours), weight of 5.7 ounces and measures 4.85 x 3.48 by 1.20 inches. It delivers super-fast performance when connected to Verizon’s limited 5G coverage. Price and coverage make this more of a novelty at this point, rather than a true mobile hotspot, although it works great when there is coverage. Battery life is also an issue.

T-Mobile Alcatel LinkZone 2

Connect up to 16 devices using a 4400 mAh battery (up to 24 hours) with a weight of 5.2 ounces and measures 4.13 x 2.6 by 0.75 inches This device has the lowest cost of any hotpots on the list. But the Internet connectivity is slow and there is no touchscreen – device configuration via web portal only.

International Mobile Hotspots for Europe, Asia, Middle East, and Africa

For international travelers it is very convenient to have a mobile hotspot designed specifically for that purpose. Alternatively, you can purchase an unlocked hotspot and then populate it with loaded SIM cards for the local cellular network. This can be an affordable option, but significantly less convenient, especially if you are travelling through multiple foreign countries.

Many international hotspots use a “virtual SIM” or “cloud SIM” that automatically connects to the local cellular network without using separate SIM cards. They also typically are set up for daily or monthly rentals, which can also be very convenient. Some models may also allow for using a SIM card, which can be nice when you can get good data rates locally.

Note that while all these international mobile hotspots claim 4G LTE performance (max download of 150 Mbps and max upload of 50 Mbps), if the local LTE signal is weak or non-existent these devices will switch to 3G or even 2G mode in order to connect. And of course, even with a strong 4G LTE network, your upload/download performance will normally be significantly less than the theoretical maximums mentioned.

 

GlocalMe G4 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot

This international mobile hotspot supports up to 10 devices, using a 3900 mAh battery (up to 18 hours), weighing 6.7 ounces and measures 5.35 x 2.84 x 0.47 inches. The G4 has excellent global coverage in over 130 countries with unlimited LTE data. There are daily rental plans and a large 5” color touchscreen display for configuration and is cloudSIM compatible

Skyroam Solis: Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot & Power Ban

The Skyroam Solis can connect only 5 devices, which may be a problem if you’re trying to provide an entire family or group with high-speed Internet. The device has a 6000 mAh battery (up to 20 hours), weighs 6.7 ounces and measures 3.66 x 3.66 x 1.02 inches. Has excellent global coverage in over 130 countries with unlimited LTE data. There are convenient daily and/or monthly rental plans. SIM-free operation is supported and there is also a slot for your own SIM if desired. There is no touchscreen, so manage the device via a web portal. Proprietary USB charging cables can be inconvenient.

Roaming Man G3 International Hotspot

This device also can connect only up to 5 devices using a 5350 mAh battery (up to 15 hours) with a weight of 8.3 ounces and measuring 4.6 x 2.5 x 0.83 inches. Excellent global coverage in over 130 countries with unlimited LTE data. Purchase the device outright or rent it daily or monthly for your trip. Has a 5” color touchscreen display for configuration. Supports SIM-free operation. This device is a bit heavier than the others, so keep this in mind

Enterprise Grade Multi-SIM Mobile Hotspots

Single-SIM mobile hotspots, like the ones listed above, can be super convenient if you’re on vacation and can also provide connectivity when travelling for business. But these hotspots are prone to performance fluctuations, just like your phone and are ill-advised for business-critical use cases. The cellular signals that travel between your device and a provider’s cell tower bounces off of obstacles like the ground, buildings, trees, and signs, and is affected by weather conditions, creating a challenging environment to operate in. Your signal strength will fluctuate significantly as you move around relative to the cell towers and as your local environment changes. We’ve all experienced this with our phones when the signal drops and we start moving around trying to get another bar or two of coverage.

But, it’s possible to combine multiple SIM cards, even from different providers, in a way that significantly boosts reliability and performance. This creates an entirely new class of mobile hotspots, the enterprise-grade multi-SIM mobile hotspot. Since fluctuations on different networks are weakly correlated (i.e. they won’t occur simultaneously), if those multiple SIM connections are intelligently managed by your mobile hotspot using SD-WAN with broadband bonding, a significantly enhanced end-user experience can be achieved to support more demanding applications such as video conferencing or cloud based business applications. Multi-SIM mobile hotspots (or sometimes called multi-WAN mobile hotspots) are mobile hotspots that house two or more 4G LTE modems that can be combined for mitigating fluctuations in signal and greatly improving overall performance and reliability.

Under the hood what these advanced mobile hotspots are doing is monitoring the wireless channels on an on-going basis so that the device can make intelligent and instantaneous decisions regarding which path to take for each Internet packet. These mobile hotspots take advantage of two important technologies, namely: overlay networking and stretched networks.

What is overlay networking?

Overlay networking refers to the VPN-like tunneling that can be achieved over the IP transport. The difference of course is that unlike a VPN overlay, the multi-WAN overlays, such as the ones used in multi-SIM mobile hotspots, can take advantage of multiple WAN Internet connections as well as implementing intelligent algorithms to optimize traffic.

How do you stretch a network?

Stretched networks refer to the concept of being able to extend a local area network with overlay networking. In the case of mobile hotspots, the local hotspot network is extended to the cloud, via the overlay network, to have access to a static IP address. In effect, the terminating side of the overlay tunnel (in the cloud) will have a static IP address and that IP address can be mapped onto the mobile hotspot, therefore acting as if it is the static IP of the hotspot. This is an interesting use case where even though the SIM cards in the mobile hotspot do not have static IPs, the device itself will have access to a static IP and can leverage that to connect to the Internet. This allows for business-critical, corporate applications that depend on static IP addresses to be deployed and used. With a stretched network, these mobile multi-SIM hotspots can also be connected directly to the corporate network via the encrypted overlay tunnel and therefore addressing any security concerns.

Advanced Enterprise Functionality

While all of the mobile hotspots we’ve mentioned in this article perform well and are quality products, they simply don’t have the capability to perform all the necessary functions that an enterprise-grade device must have. Forbes has a nice article where they define what “enterprise grade” means, but we can best summarize by saying an enterprise-grade hotspot needs to have the performance, reliability, and advanced features necessary to accomplish critical business activities.

In particular, when a mobile hotspot becomes an integral part of a company’s network infrastructure, such as providing Internet access for mobile clinics or ambulances, or enabling live video applications, it becomes critical for the device to have all the sophistication of modern network edge devices. A single-SIM (cellular modem) device simply can’t deliver the performance and features necessary. By using an enterprise-grade, multi-SIM mobile hotspot powered by SD-WAN with broadband bonding, an entirely new level of performance and functionality can be achieved. These hotspots provide sophisticated, packet-by-packet routing, robust firewalling, top-notch security (up to AES-256), website blocking, DNS redirection, and traffic engineering via traffic identification, classification, and QoS bandwidth reservations and the centralized device monitoring and management.

Time to Choose

We’ve gone over a lot in today’s blog. Hopefully, if you’re a business traveler or individual consumer, you now have the information you need to make an informed decision about purchasing a mobile hotspot, and you’ve got a handful of great devices to start with.

If you require a mobile hotspot that needs to provide enterprise-grade capabilities that a single-SIM hotspot can’t provide, take a look at the most powerful mobile hotspots on the planet – multi-SIM mobile hotspot/routers powered by SD-WAN with broadband bonding for performance you never thought was possible.

 

Rob Stone, Mushroom Networks, Inc. 

Mushroom Networks is the provider of Broadband Bonding appliances that put your networks on auto-pilot. Application flows are intelligently routed around network problems such as latency, jitter and packet loss. Network problems are solved even before you can notice.

https://www.mushroomnetworks.com

 

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

© 2004 – 2020 Mushroom Networks Inc. All rights reserved.

Let’s chat. Call us at +1 (858) 452-1031 or fill the form:

Get your WAN Cheat Sheet

Download your copy of rare tips and tricks for a better WAN. Get your free copy today!

We respect your privacy.