Personal hotspots: the rise of mobile tethering

One of the weirdest things about Apple’s MacBook Air promoted as the ultimate in wireless computing was that it never had 3G built in. While other notebook makers were rushing to include 3G modems in their laptops Apple dug its heels in and simply refused to acknowledge market demand for it. Apple’s support for USB 3G modems was also conspicuously lousy.

In hindsight though Steve Jobs clearly had a point of view that most people wouldn’t want to pay for a second SIM card and plan just for their laptop when they could just use their iPhone as a modem.

At the time it seemed like a stupid position given that mobile broadband plans offered much larger download allowances than mobile phone plans and tethering an iPhone to the MacBook Air via the USB cord was a clunky arrangement.

As it turns out though now that smartphones have Wi-Fi hotspots that let you connect a laptop to the net anywhere over the 3G network and mobile plans come with gigabytes of data it’s becoming obvious that Steve Jobs was right. Most people now would prefer to use their existing mobile plan to connect their laptop to the net rather than having to get a separate SIM and modem and deal with all the associated driver hassles.

Plus to co-opt the old photography maxim: the best 3G modem is the one that’s always in your pocket — your smartphone.

One area that phones don’t quite equal USB modems is in performance — you’ll almost always get faster throughput on a dedicated 3G USB modem than on a phone’s hotspot mode.

However the latest phones with 14.4-21Mbit/s HSPA connectivity 802.11n and fast dual-core processors provide enough speed for most everyday internet usage on a laptop; you just wouldn’t want to download a 1.5GB HD movie on your laptop through your phone in tethered mode.

Which network’s best for tethering?

There’s no contest — the fastest network for tethering is Telstra Next G. Its entire radio network covering 99% of the Australian population has been upgraded to HSPA+ (21Mbit/s) technology.

Telstra says more than 60% of the population is now covered by HSPA+ Dual Channel technology (42Mbit/s peak network downlink).

In some remote areas serving around 6% of the population speeds are constrained to 7.2Mbit/s due to the towers using microwave radio backhaul rather than the fibre used in metro and major regional areas.

Telstra is also now price-competitive with Optus and Vodafone though not as cheap as the many minnow-sized telcos reselling the Optus network. (Telstra does not currently allow other telcos to resell the Next G network though this is mooted to become available soon.)

Both Optus and Vodafone have a spotty reputation when it comes to data speed. Optus has 700 of its towers upgraded to HSPA+ technology (21Mbit/s) and while Vodafone told APC it is currently installing 42Mbit/s base stations across its new replacement network it didn’t answer enquiries about what the current minimum speed on its base stations is.