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Using the iPhone 4 as a Personal Wi-Fi Hotspot

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One of the features that Apple has always boasted about for future versions of the iPhone is tethering. This feature will allow you to transform the iPhone's wireless web capabilities into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, enabling you to connect other Wi-Fi enabled devices to the web via your iPhone. Jason Rich focuses on the costs and practicality of tethering via the iPhone, and offers suggestions for alternate options for creating lower-cost Wi-Fi hotspots that your iPhone, laptop computer, iPad, iPod Touch, digital camera, and other devices can utilize.

With the new iOS 4.3 software upgrade for the iPhone, one new feature will be something that Apple announced long ago, but that AT&T Wireless never permitted here in the United States: the ability to create a personal Wi-Fi hotspot via your iPhone (which is also referred to as tethering).

Tethering allows you to share the iPhone 4's 3G wireless data connection with other Wi-Fi[nd]enabled devices, such as your iMac desktop or MacBook laptop computer; or an Apple iPad, Apple iPod Touch, or a digital camera, for example. Theoretically, tethering should be possible with an iPhone 3G, iPhone 3Gs, or iPhone 4.

Now that Verizon is offering the iPhone 4, one of the company's first announcements was that tethering would be made available, but for an additional fee. It didn't take long for AT&T Wireless to announce similar plans to permit tethering, which is a feature it has restricted up until now.

Currently, with AT&T Wireless, if you are grandfathered into the highly desirable unlimited data plan for the iPhone for $30 per month, you'll need to give this up in order to utilize tethering. Instead, you'll need to "upgrade" to AT&T's "2GB + Tethering" plan for $45.00 per month (with each additional 1GB costing $10.00).

Keep in mind that the connection speed with a 3G tethered connection will be slower than a traditional wireless broadband connection, for example, but you will be able to use all features and functions of your iPhone simultaneously while it's hosting the tethered Wi-Fi connection with other devices, providing those devices access to the wireless web.

On average, a 3G data connection allows for a minimum data rate of two Mbit per second for stationary or walking users, and 384 kbit per second while within a moving vehicle.

For iPhones that are signed up with Verizon, the monthly cost of the "Unlimited on iPhone, 2GB on 3G Mobile Hotspot" data plan is $49.99 per month. This includes unlimited wireless web access via the iPhone itself, but limits tethered devices to 2GB per month of data usage. Each additional 1GB will cost $20.00.

With Verizon's "Unlimited on iPhone, 2GB on 3G Mobile Hotspot" data plan, up to five devices can utilize the 3G Mobile Hotspot created by the iPhone simultaneously. However, all data usage, including data accessed on the iPhone itself, will be calculated against the monthly 2GB allowance.

Once you activate a data plan that allows for tethering here in the United States, this feature must be turned on within the iPhone. To configure your phone's Internet tethering settings, press the iPhone's Home button and then tap on the Settings icon. Next, access the General option, followed by the Network option. Within the Network screen will be an Internet Tethering option that must be turned on.

Next, you'll need to configure your other devices to tap the Wi-Fi Hotspot Internet connection now established and maintained by your iPhone. The Wi-Fi connection should show up on your other devices as a connection called "iPhone".

Depending on what device you plan to tether to your iPhone to obtain an Internet connection, you may find it more cost effective to purchase a separate wireless data card and service plan for your laptop computer or iPad, for example.

Other Personal Wi-Fi Hotspot Options

Before signing up and paying for a data plan that allows tethering, determine if this is a feature you actually need and will be able to utilize. Keep in mind that most airports, hotels, offices, Internet cafes, and many homes already have high-speed (Broadband) Wi-Fi connections available, which offer considerably faster connection speeds than what the 3G tethered hotspot will offer via your iPhone. So, if you already have access to a Wi-Fi Hotspot, there's no need to create another one with your iPhone. In fact, if you turn on the Wi-Fi capabilities of your iPhone and connect to an already established Broadband Wi-Fi connection, you'll enjoy much faster Internet connection speeds than what's offered by the phone's standard 3G wireless web connection.

If a Wi-Fi hotspot isn't available, can you simply rely on your iPhone to access the web on its own, without tethering other devices? If you're using a full web browser on your laptop computer, for example, using up 2GB worth of data with a tethered web connection will happen extremely quickly if you download, upload, or stream large multimedia files, for example.

So, just because tethering is finally available via your iPhone, this doesn't mean you actually need to utilize it in order to access the Web with your iPhone and other devices. All the cellular service providers in America offer wireless data cards and data plans for laptop computers, for example, some of which utilize a much faster 4G network and cost less money.

For example, Verizon also offers a 4G (not 3G) UBS modem for any laptop computer that includes 5GB of data per month for $50.00, which is the same as what it charges for 2GB of tethered data with an iPhone (each additional 1GB is $10.00 per month). So, for the same money, you can wind up with a faster connection for your laptop computer that doesn't require you to first tether the computer to another device to access the web.

If you need wireless web access only occasionally from your laptop computer, for example, companies like Virgin Mobile offer pay-as-you-go data plans, like Broadband2Go, that start at $40.00 per month for unlimited 3G web access using a USB modem available for a one-time cost of $80.00. You can also use this plan with the MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot ($149.99 for the hardware), which allows you to create your own mobile hotspot for up to five Wi-Fi[nd]enabled devices. These options require no long-term service contracts and are more cost effective than the tethering plans offered for the iPhone by either AT&T Wireless or Verizon.

Yes, the iPhone 4 is an incredibly powerful tool for information management and communications. However, tethering is one over-hyped feature that for the majority of iPhone 4 users isn't necessary and is not worth paying the premium cost for, especially with traditional (free and unlocked) Wi-Fi Hotspots now so readily available across the country.

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