It’s possible you’ve heard the term “internet stick” and wondered “how do internet sticks work?” At first glance, the image of an internet stick conjures thoughts and images of the process required to use any typical USB drive – we just plug it into the side of the computer and suddenly have the ability to save files to a whole new area that didn’t even exist before that moment.
It looks the same as the USB digital storage devices we’re familiar with so it should work the same, right? When that USB stick is really an internet stick, the short answer is both yes and no.
If you own a digital camera, computer, television, or almost any electronic device for that matter, chances are you’re familiar with a USB or flash drive. If you’re like many of us, you’ve got a handful (or a few handfuls) of them scattered along the path between work and home, from desk drawers to jacket pockets to the cup holder in the car, but not all USB’s are created equally.
The Difference is On the Inside
At face value, they might look alike, and we may even plug the internet stick into the same USB port on our computers or laptops as their memory storing twin, but that’s where the similarities end.
A regular USB stick or flash drive allows us to save, open, move, add, and delete files held within its memory. A USB stick designed to provide internet service, however, has been transformed into a piece of external hardware and has the same data storage capacity for storing our documents and favorite meme collection as our computer’s mouse, keyboard, or monitor – absolutely zero.
Just like its USB doppelganger, it goes by many names, but whether you know it as an internet stick, cellular modem, mobile broadband stick, or dongle, the functionality breaks down to the same results. The device plugs into one of the USB outlets on our computer and, somewhat magically, we have access to the wonders of the internet.
So, we know what they are, but how do internet sticks work?
Essentially, instead of letting us store data that we can take from place to place, this USB-like stick has a built-in technology. Depending on the type of device, when plugged into your computer, it makes it possible for you to:
- Connect to your home Wi-Fi
- Connect to a hotspot
- Connect via a personal mobile plan
Wi-Fi, the abbreviation for wireless fidelity, is a term used to refer to the technology that allows us to connect our electronic devices to the world wide web as well as to each other without the use of wires. Using radio waves in the same way as mobile phones, information is transmitted from device to device across a network.
When your internet was installed in your home, you were probably given two options – either use a router that you own, or your service provider would be more than happy to provide one for you, generally for a small monthly usage fee that covers maintenance should there be an issue with the equipment.
Whichever choice was made, chances are the incoming service wires were plugged into the router and it was connected to power before it magically began sending out an invisible signal for all your connective devices to see. (Please keep in mind that anyone’s connective devices that are within range can also see your wireless signal, so password protection is always strongly advised.)
Connection to Wi-Fi with devices like our cellphones and tablets is generally done through internal modems and with minimal interaction on our part, but this isn’t always the case for our laptops and desktop computers.
Many desktop computers and even some laptops, especially older models of both, have modems that require a direct wired connection. For a computer such as this to connect to the internet, the wire with the incoming signal that was plugged into the router at installation would have to be plugged directly into the computer’s modem instead.
If your computer fits this description and doesn’t already have a wireless modem, an internet stick can be particularly useful.
Using a USB internet connection is also effective for those who need to restrict internet access for children. This can often be a real concern for those parents with young ones who may need to use basic computer programs for an extended period.
Removing the concern is then as simple as removing the internet stick from the USB port.
The same internet stick that allows us to connect to our internet service at home also allows us to connect to the internet on our portable devices when we’re in a hotspot.
Unlike our wireless connection at home, however, access to the internet when using a hotspot can require you to sign in using the business’s password.
Whether you live in a big city, a small town, or somewhere in between, many of the public places we visit or pass by provide wireless internet hotspots for their customers. But what exactly is a hotspot?
A hotspot, by definition, is any physical location, usually a place of business or other places open to the public, where we, the public, can obtain internet access. In simpler terms, a hotspot is an internet connection that the business merchant shares with the public (their customers, or at least that’s the merchant’s hope).
Many business owners have capitalized on the concept by offering free wireless internet access for their customers. This gift to their customers is used as a selling feature in hopes of luring in new customers and thereby improving their sales.
Businesses like coffee shops, cafes, and hotels will often advertise their free internet access. Public places such as airports and libraries are also known to provide free, but often time limited, access to their internet service.
We should also be aware that not all hotspots are free and available to use for everyone. Some hotspots provided by merchants require customers/users to have a subscription or service with specific mobile providers to gain access.
If you’ve ever been in an establishment and found yourself among the select few without internet capability, the reason may lie in your selection of service providers. Business owners can enter into an agreement with specific service providers that allow only customers using their mobile service to access their hotspot.
This issue is often prevalent in more rural areas where service providers may be limited.
Service provider restrictions don’t have to limit us, though. We can circumvent this issue by going outside the traditional definition of a hotspot as a service being provided by business owners and, instead, create our own.
Mobile Plan Access
We have the option to take (at least some) control of our mobile internet access by choosing to use what most providers refer to as a mobile broadband stick. This internet stick has a chip or card attached inside of it that helps to program it for service, much like our cellphones.
Depending on your service provider, the broadband stick may be included in the cost of the service or subscription plan. Some networks discount the cost of the stick as a bonus for signing up with them for a service plan.
There are also a few networks that allow you to purchase the broadband stick outright and pay for service as you go without a service commitment.
If cost is a factor, please keep in mind that mobile broadband is typically a service provided for a fee in addition to your regular cellular service costs. Check with your provider for clarification to avoid a billing nightmare later.
While using our own mobile plan gives us freedom, there are also limitations to using the internet over a wireless cellular connection.
Most mobile broadband sticks access the same 3G data network that our smartphones use to access the internet. As such, we can expect slower data transfer speeds to our laptops.
Some service providers offer 4G wireless broadband which delivers faster speeds and usually offers higher data use limits for a somewhat higher monthly service fee than the 3G option.
If you’ve considered using a mobile broadband stick over a traditional landline broadband service, be prepared for much tighter restrictions on the amount of your monthly usage.
Also, as the service is provided through a mobile carrier, reception of service will be comparable to the cellphone reception you experience.
Safety and Security
One of the biggest concerns every internet user has with the world wide web, in general, is the safety of our information. This question of safety is especially a concern when we use wireless connections.
Every wireless connection, from our wireless routers at home to our internet sticks that are out and about is a potentially easy target for hackers without the proper safety precautions.
This means that if you chose to use your own router at the time of your home internet service installation, one of the precautions you’ll need to take requires changing the admin username as well as its factory set password.
These are standard for each model a company makes and finding this information is as simple as looking to the router manufacturer’s website. That’s also somewhat good news too, though.
If you happen to forget your new password, the router can be set back to its default factory settings, including the standard password and you can start all over again.
When the wireless connection is our personal one, we know what safety measures have been taken, but the true security of a public hotspot’s network is often unknown to its users.
The merchant providing the hotspot may also have access to the metadata as well as the content accessed by their customers and passersby.
Hackers, who are known to frequent free hotspot establishments for the sole purpose of stealing information, use a process known as packet capturing.
After connecting to the hotspot, a packet analyzer program is run on the network, intercepting and logging the network’s traffic.
But if we have our own hotspot, we should be golden, right?
Well, not exactly.
Using our own mobile device as a hotspot doesn’t automatically protect us from the threat of information theft simply because we’re not on an unknown hotspot.
Yes, mobile broadband sticks put the power to become our own hotspot in our hands but, as a wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
Without the proper security measures, the information we send and receive is just as open and available for the taking as any other unsecured network.
If you’re concerned about the security of your personal hotspot, internet stick, or home wireless connections, contact your service provider’s technical support department. Most providers have support personnel who can walk you through the process to make sure you have the most secure setup for your device and situation.
By now, you should sufficiently be able to answer the question “how do internet sticks work?” and feel armed with enough knowledge to decide which would be the best fit for you and the devices you own. You may even be able to impress your friends with your newfound tech knowledge!