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How to get WiFi in a car

Recombu Cars looks at the options available for having a WiFi hotspot in the car, including Three’s Road-Fi and USB dongles.

Most of us can already stream cat videos and look at Kim Kardashian selfies on a smartphone, but what if you want an actual WiFi connection in a car for a laptop? Or perhaps for a journey abroad where some data plans are rendered useless?

There are a few ways you can turn your car into a mobile WiFi hotspot. Here is our rundown some of the main options and their pros and cons.

WiFi hotspot with USB charging

The most obvious option is simply to buy a WiFi dongle that creates a mobile hotspot and keep it in the car. So long as you are within your network’s coverage area, it will let you connect multiple devices (usually up to 10) without any hassle. 

If the WiFi hotspot can be charged with a USB port, which is becoming a more common feature in cars, it will stay juiced up as you drive. Or you can just ensure it is fully charged after every journey. 

The good

Mobile hotspot dongles can come in 4G flavours so data speeds can be very fast and there are usually deals around to keep the cost down, especially if you buy the hotspot outright and then pick the right pay as you go data tariff from your preferred network. You can use a dongle elsewhere, too.

The bad

Forget to charge the hotspot and you will have to hope the juice it gets from your vehicle outweighs what it uses. You could also forget to bring the charging cable or the WiFi hotspot itself.

3G/4G USB dongle

Like the WiFi dongle, except this plugs directly into a USB port and is typically used for a laptop. By plugging it straight into the vehicle’s USB port, you can avoid the need to keep said laptop running to supply everyone with mobile WiFi and it will recharge as you drive along.

The good

Much like the WiFi hotspot, you can use it elsewhere and there are good deals around to keep costs down. It is also usually a smaller device and therefore less noticeable and easier to hide away from curious toddlers.

The bad

Not all cars have a USB socket so no USB port in a car, no mobile WiFi hotspot.

Three Road-Fi

The Huawei-built Road-Fi from Three plugs into the 12v socket of a car and can provide data for up to 10 devices at the same time, which means it will work for bigger passenger vehicles.

The good

2GB of data can be had from as little as £10 a month if you are happy to lock yourself into a 24-month contract or pay up to £49 for the device upfront, making it relatively cheap. You may even have the option to add it to your current Three bill so consider giving customer services a buzz.

The bad

24 months is a long time if you go the contract route and the device will only work in the car so its use is more limited. Road-Fi also means you will have to unplug any other devices you would usually use such as a phone charger and no iPhone user wants that.

O2 and EE also offer a similar device (in fact, it looks and probably is identical in the case of the former) in case you want something other than Three, although the Road-Fi does seem competitive.

Tethering

A lot of smartphones have tethering built in. The mobile WiFi hotspot option is usually relatively easy to find (on Android look under settings then hit ‘More’ and choose ‘Tethering & portable hotspot’ although this may vary if you are on an older OS version). Enable and off you go. 

The good

Smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 allow up to ten devices to connect at once and setting up a password to keep the WiFi secure is painless. There is no need to have a second data plan, either, so can work out cheapest providing your current tariff allows tethering. 

The bad

Some contracts may not support tethering and if they do, be sure to watch out for any potential hefty costs if you go over your monthly data limit. GiffGaff stops tethering once you reach a certain limit, other networks may not be so kind. Check the small print first to avoid any misery and consider an app that keeps tabs of your data use. 

Buy a WiFi hotspot-enabled car

Some cars are WiFi-enabled and may be more accessible than you think. BMW, for instance, has WiFi hotspot preparation on the 4 Series, although selecting it adds £45 for a special armrest, £395 for ‘Enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging’ and the Professional Media package, which costs an extra £900. And you have to provide the data yourself. 

The good

Go for a pricier, more luxury vehicle like the Tesla Model S or Bentley and that lovely data is free, so you can stream Spotify until your ears bleed and never have to pay a thing. Well, except for the tens (or even hundreds) of thousands for the car itself.

The bad

Supplying your own SIM-card means paying data charges. You could, of course, use your own existing SIM-card but swapping it around after a journey is going to be a huge pain and inevitably never happen. 

Conclusion

It seems there are a number of ways to take a WiFi connection on the move but some are more convenient than others and there are other factors to take into consideration. Can you afford multiple data plans and do you really need it?

Also bear in mind certain networks will offer better 3G or 4G coverage than others in the area you live and where you travel to and that, given the nature of mobile phones, it may not always prove infallible.

There are also safety implications to consider, chiefly the fact that only your passengers should be making use of it while you drive. Nobody wants you crashing because you couldn’t get enough of Pokemon Go.

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