When I had a chat with a lady who bought a new Opel car, she mentioned how expensive the in-car Wi-Fi is to run. In addition to paying for an OnStar subscription to enable Wi-Fi access, she must pay for usage. She was surprised to hear that there are other alternatives available that would let her children go online with their Tablets.
In this article, I will discuss various options for getting Wi-Fi capable devices online in the car. These do not involve any hard wiring or modification to the car. In fact, the tethering option mentioned below may work without having to purchase any additional equipment or cables.
This article is broken down into the following sections:
- Mobile Hotspot (Tethering) – Turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Portable Hotspot – Battery powered 3G/4G Wi-Fi router.
- Wingle – USB or lighter socket powered 3G/4G Wi-Fi router.
- Largest prepay data SIM packages – For 3G/4G routers.
- Data conservation and cost tips
Update 6th March 2018: iD Mobile has gone into provisional liquidation on the 6th March. I have crossed out the affected sections below and will remove them after the network ceases.
Mobile Hotspot (Tethering)
The simplest way to create a Wi-Fi hotspot is enable the Hotspot feature on your phone. Most Smartphones provide this capability and can connect up to 5 devices such as tablets, laptops and other phones. Depending on the provider (see below), the Wi-Fi data usage usually comes out of your data allowance. As the Hotspot feature configuration varies across handset makers, check the phone’s settings for a ‘Tethering’ or ‘Hotspot’ menu.
Before trying out this feature, be sure to check the notes below particularly with bill pay plans. Some Three plans are known for hefty tethering charges, particularly iPhone and former O2 plans. Be sure to configure a Wi-Fi password, which devices will require to connect. On some Android phones, go into the settings menu and then in to ‘More’ to access the Tethering settings and turn it on.
Largest prepay phone packages for tethering
Three prepay (€20 top-up every 4 weeks for AYCE) – Although Three do not officially allow or support tethering, it reportedly works with their prepay AYCE plan. Even the 60GB fair usage allowance is not a hard limit. While this may seem like the ideal package, unfortunately Three’s network performance varies a lot from one location to another. Many areas face high contention at peak time after 8pm and on weekends. This €20 top-up also adds €20 credit to the account balance. As Three does not offer any call bundles on prepay, this plan is not cost effective for users who make more than a few short calls a month.
Eir Mobile prepay (€20 charge every 4 weeks for Simplicity plan). Eir Mobile’s €20 prepay Simplicity plans provide 15GB per top-up interval, plus 60GB of social media access which includes YouTube. Although Eir’s 3G/4G coverage is not as widespread as Three, its data speed is generally superior particularly at peak time. Unlike Three, their Simplicity plans with unlimited calls cover all networks including landlines. This plan consumes the full €20 top-up (or gobbles €20 of credit) every 4 weeks.
Vodafone X Weekend (€20 charge every 4 weeks). This account requires a Student ID to sign up or a Facebook account with an age of under 25. The Weekend plan provides 20GB per top-up interval plus 20GB per weekend. This package would be ideal for those with long weekend driving trips such as weekend shopping. Vodafone provides the most widespread 3G/4G coverage in Ireland based on my experience. This makes it ideal for rural locations where people tend to drive longer runs. For example, there are many areas in Co. Donegal that lack Three and Eir Mobile coverage despite what their maps show. Check the tethering note below.
iD Mobile (€15 top-up every month). This top-up provides 30GB of data, which should be ample for several hours of in-car streaming each month. iD Mobile operates on the Three network, giving the same 3G and 4G coverage as what Three offers. This top-up also provides 300 minutes to any network, ideal for users who make more than 50 minutes of calls each month. Like Three, this €15 top-up also adds the full top-up amount to the account balance.
Prepay tethering / hotspot notes
Vodafone: Before tethering with any Vodafone plan, check the access points set up on the phone and remove any with the APN ‘hs.vodafone.ie’. If this APN is present, tethering will likely incur out of bundle charges, even if this is not the default APN. With a prepay phone a simple test would be to check the credit balance, load a few webpages with a tethered device and check the credit balance again.
Lyca Mobile: Unfortunately, this mobile operator blocks tethering altogether.
Three: Although Three states that they do not support or allow tethering with its AYCE plans, they currently do not block it. They will not provide any technical support for tethering or hotspot related use.
Bill-pay tethering / hotspot notes
Three: Before Three took over O2, most O2 tariffs charged tethering/hotspot usage as out-of-bundle data usage. These legacy tariffs still apply tethering charges. Similarly, iPhone plans and Three Business plans generally charge for tethering. This tethering charge is a hefty €1.01/MB and a few minutes of YouTube streaming can run up a multi-hundred Euro bill. To check whether the phone uses the legacy O2 network, check the phone’s APN settings.
If the APN is ‘internet’, the SIM is very likely a legacy O2 SIM – Do not tether with this! If it is ‘3ireland.ie’, the SIM uses the native Three network and will unlikely incur tethering charges. To be on the safe side, I recommend doing a very brief test run, i.e. enable the phone’s Hotspot, load the BBC homepage from a tethered device and immediately turn off the Hotspot. If the upcoming bill shows a separate charge for data/Internet use, then do not tether with this plan.
Eir Mobile: So far, I have not heard of any issue with using Eir Mobile or the former Meteor network for tethering. Like using data on the handset, data access while in Hotspot mode will deduct from the available data allowance. As Eir Mobile provides unlimited (60GB) YouTube access with most of its plans, this is great for watching YouTube on tablets.
Vodafone: As with Vodafone prepay, I strongly recommend checking the phone’s access point names, particularly with a Vodafone branded handset. If the APN ‘hs.vodafone.ie’ is present, try deleting it. Even if it is not default, it may incur out-of-bundle data charges when tethering.
Other networks: I am not familiar with how other mobile network operators treat tethering. The best way to check is carry out a brief test run – Turn on the phone’s Hotspot feature, load up the BBC website with a tethered device and immediately turn off the Hotspot feature. If the provider shows up-to-date usage in the online account, wait a few hours and check if any extra data/Internet charge appears. If such a charge appears, then this provider charges for tethering.
Portable Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot
A portable Wi-Fi hotspot functions like a home broadband router, but runs on battery power and uses 3G/4G for connectivity. These devices are about the size of a pack of playing cards and typically take a full size (mini) SIM card. They provide several benefits over using a mobile phone’s hotspot:
Battery operation – With an internal battery for power, they do not consume the phone’s battery as tethering would do. The battery provides several hours of runtime, which means one can carry it around for portable Internet access such as at a picnic bench. Models with batteries in excess of 3000mAh can run the entire day, ideal for long journeys. An in-car USB charger or power bank can also extend the run time.
Cordless – One can freely position the device in the car, such as above the rear car seats where it has clear cellular signal access through the windows. Similarly, one can carry the device while camping or hiking. This is not possible with the Opel OnStar or other hard-wired Wi-Fi systems.
Independent data package – Portable Wi-Fi hotspots require a separate SIM card and data plan. Be sure to set up the APN correctly for the SIM card. With an incorrect configuration, the connection may be erratic with the Three and Eir networks. With Vodafone, an incorrect APN will likely incur out-of-bundle charges, particularly when attempting to use a phone SIM in a portable hotspot.
Drawbacks – As with other portable electronics, they need periodic recharging. Many portable hotspots also lack the signal sensitivity of higher end phones. For fringe reception areas, considering getting a portable 4G antenna with a window suction cup.
USB Wingle (Wi-Fi 3G/4G dongle)
A USB Wingle operates like a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, with the exception that it has no battery. Like a USB data dongle, it depends on its USB connection for power, such as a USB charger or Powerbank. Unlike a USB data dongle, it can operate independent of a PC or laptop.
With a multi outlet USB in-car charger to power the Wingle, it will automatically power up each time the car starts. This eliminates the need to manually power it on and off for each trip. It does not require periodic recharging either.
For camping or picnics, a USB Power bank can also power a USB Wingle. In this scenario, it will operate much like a portable Wi-Fi Hotspot.
Largest prepay data SIM packages
Eir Mobile broadband SIM (50GB for €30 every 30 days) – Despite the high bundle price, this actually works out the cheapest dedicated prepay broadband for moderate to heavy data users. A smaller 15GB bundle costs €20, which also lasts 30 days. One can also purchase a new bundle as soon as the existing runs out. In the past, this was ideal for light data users until Eir reduced the 180 day expiry to 30 days.
Eir Phone SIM (€20 Simplicity plan) – This SIM will work in a router and will provide 15GB of data and 60GB of social media access including YouTube. Assuming mostly YouTube usage, this is effectively 75GB per 28 day interval. This is ideal for multiple long journeys with multiple kids streaming YouTube.
Three Phone SIM (€20 top-up every 4 weeks) – This SIM will also work in a router, however, Three will not offer any support for such usage. Many people choose this approach as it effectively offers unlimited data. An Eir prepay broadband SIM may be better for peak time streaming due to the Three’s heavy network load.
iD Mobile broadband (25GB for €15 every 30 days) – For light to moderate usage, this is the next cheapest after Eir prepay mobile broadband. iD Mobile uses the Three 4G network, which is ideal for those who travel in areas lacking Eir 3G/4G coverage. This SIM is also intended for use in a router, unlike using a Three Phone SIM. iD Mobile also have two larger packages of €25 for 40GB and €30 for 60GB. Unlike Eir, it is not possible to buy a new bundle before the renewal date, even if the existing bundle runs out. The only workaround would be to use multiple SIMs in rotation.
Vodafone (7.5GB for €20 every 28 days) – Vodafone currently provides puny data bundles with its prepay mobile broadband SIMs. This option would only be useful for users who need widespread 3G/4G coverage, such as professionals. To get a prepay SIM, purchase a Vodafone prepay SIM in a Vodafone store. During the MyVodafone registration process, choose the ‘data modem’ option when it asks whether to configure the SIM for a phone or modem.
See the prepay sections of this article for in-depth information covering each network.
Data conservation and cost tips
Video streaming on a tablet typically consumes around 1GB per hour in HD (720p). Standard definition video such as cartoons typically consume half this rate. Netflix consumes around 2GB per hour in HD. General web browsing such as social media consumes around 100MB per hour.
For tethering to a laptop, configure the Wi-Fi connection as a metered connection. This will stop Windows updates downloading over the connection, which can easily gobble 1GB or more with each round of updates. Once the laptop is set up for tethering, click the Wi-Fi icon in the task bar, then click ‘Network & Internet settings’. Click ‘Change connection properties’ and turn on ‘Set as metered connection’.
When tethering with an Eir Simplicity or “More than you can eat” data plan, try to restrict video streaming to YouTube. The Eir Simplicity plans provide a 60GB fair use limit for YouTube and social media access. Other streaming services such as Netflix will come out of the regular data allowance.
For multi-hour car journeys, consider placing video content directly on the tablets instead of streaming it. Alternatively, get an in-car DVD playback system. Check the charity shops, which often have a selection of used children’s DVDs.
For Opel OnStar users, consider getting a portable hotspot to supplement or replace the car’s built-in Wi-Fi. For the price of an annual Wi-Fi bundle (€125 for 100GB), this would pay for 4 x 50GB bundles with an Eir Mobile Broadband SIM. If the user has no interest in the OnStar subscription besides Wi-Fi access, that €100 annual subscription cost would pay for the 4G Wi-Fi hotspot device.