Phone or Wi-Fi hotspot? Both

This article was originally published on Salon on July 8, 2010.

Android software update turns Internet access loss into a minor problem

As noted several days ago, problems in an intercontinental fiber-optic cable have caused Internet outages for a lot of folks in South Africa this week. Those of us attending the Highway Africa and World Journalism Education Congress meetings were among the mostly disconnected.

But not completely in my case, due to a truly nifty feature in the latest version of its Android mobile operating system: The phone becomes a Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s simply a matter of going to the Settings and turning it on.

I’d already bought a local SIM card and a voice/data plan — total cost about $75 for ample voice time plus 2 gigabytes of data — for the two weeks we were scheduled to be in the country. I didn’t want to pay the outrageous Internet charges hotels tend to charge in much of the world, and also knew we’d be visiting some non-urban areas; the mobile networks do a comprehensive job of covering the country, and in a pinch, I figured, this would suffice. The pinch became a crunch with the cable failure, making the investment an even better one than I’d anticipated.

It’s not new to convert a mobile phone to a modem via tethering. I’d done that before with several other phones. Turning it into a hotspot was more difficult. With this feature, Google has added a service that users will relish — but which some mobile carriers will loathe, because the need for expensive extra dongles and data plans just went away in many cases. Some carriers seem to be preempting this feature, it seems, just for that reason. (It’s possible to unlock these and other “prohibited” features, though it takes some work, which I’ll describe in another posting one of these days.)

My U.S. mobile carrier charges a data fee for the phone, and with a bandwidth cap of (I believe) about 5 GB per month. It doesn’t care, as far as I can tell, whether I use it with the phone alone or a phone/computer combination. This is the right approach, but some carriers want you topay more just for the convenience of tethering your laptop to the phone.

Unfortunately, the latest Android OS isn’t available yet on many of the Android phones. (And the word is it won’t work, ever, on some older phones like the ones, such as the G1s.) So if you have one of those, you’ll just have to wait until your carrier decides to a) install the upgrade; and b) enable the hotspot.