The Smarter, Cheaper Alternative to iPhone Tethering

Last Updated Jan 27, 2011 10:11 AM EST

Do AT&T and Verizon think we're made of money?

In an ideal world, you'd be able to use your iPhone as a mobile hotspot for your laptop, iPad, and other devices -- without paying a small fortune for the privilege.

AT&T does offer tethering, but only for one device. Verizon's iPhone will support up to five devices, meaning it's a more traditional mobile-hotspot solution. But both carriers charge an extra $20 per month (on top of your existing data plan) and limit you to 2GB of data -- which is pretty easy to burn through if you're a heavy user.

From there, AT&T charges an extra $10 per 1GB when you exceed the cap; Verizon charges $20. (Check out CNET's story on iPhone pricing for more details.)

If you're footing the bill for your employees' phones (or even just your own), these added fees could quickly drive you into the poorhouse. Fortunately, I think there's a smarter, cheaper way to go: BYO mobile hotspot.

With a contract-free, pay-as-you-go mobile hotspot like the Rover Puck (pictured) or Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200, you gain considerable advantages over the AT&T/Verizon tethering/hotspot plans. Here are five:

1. Price. Although there are upfront costs for the hardware ($150), you're not locked into a contract. What's more, you can buy service as needed, instead of paying monthly for service you might be using for just a few days. With the Rover, for example, you can pay just $5 for 24 hours of unlimited 3G/4G access. Virgin's options start at $10 for 10 days' worth of service (though you're capped at 100MB). Over the long haul, you should be able to save money.

2. They can be passed around. Say you have 20 mobile workers, but only five are in the field at any given time. Instead of paying for AT&T/Verizon tethering for all 20, just dispense the mobile-hotspot gear to whoever needs it. This won't work for every business, but if it does for yours, the savings could be huge.

3. They give your iPhone another network. AT&T's coverage is notoriously bad in cities like New York and San Francisco. The Rover and MiFi rely on Clearwire's WiMax and Sprint's 3G networks, respectively. So if you (or your employee) can't get a decent data connection, just fire up your hotspot. It might be a huge improvement.

4. They don't drain your iPhone's battery. Tethering gobbles up the juice. A mobile hotspot has its own battery. Granted, that means yet another AC adapter to bring along, but at least your phone won't run out of power in the blink of an eye.

5. Duh: They work with all phones, not just iPhones. I think that one speaks for itself.

Is this the ideal solution for every business? Of course not. But before you start plunking down an extra $20 per month for every iPhone in your shop, I highly recommend investigating your mobile-hotspot options.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.