Reduce Frustration with Simple Android Phone to PC Tethering

Living in California, we have our share of disasters. Until recently, I would think of “disasters” like earthquakes and wildfires. So imagine my surprise to find out my internet provider could create their own. In this tutorial, I’ll show how to use USB tethering between an Android phone and a Windows desktop. Knowing how to share a mobile connection before you need it can save you from frustration.

Temporary Service Interruptions

My troubles started the night before. I noticed that someone had placed adhesive notes above the mailboxes. Most had blown away because of the wind. Anyway, I pulled one of the COMCAST BUSINESS notices off. The headline read, “We’re doing work in your area to build our next-generation network.” Unfortunately, that line was followed by too much small text that people glazed over. And if you speak Spanish, you probably never flipped it over.

Comcast notice stuck above mailboxes.
The notice I pulled off the night before

I won’t go into details except to say this was not a temporary outage. COMCAST had the means to alert its customers of this upgrade and possible disruption well in advance. Their Xfinity app or email could have been used for notification. It’s not like the network engineers got together and decided to upgrade the network the day before. Instead, someone chose not to communicate properly, which created issues for people here. A bit ironic for a communications company. Then again, they still haven’t addressed my issue (#ECM0001549061).

With the COMCAST outage, I had no internet access on my desktop, which I use for work. I’m not one to work on a smartphone. However, having a smartphone did provide a solution. Modern cell phones allow you to tether to another device or configure a mobile hotspot.

In my case, I was using a Google Pixel phone and a Windows 11 PC. Without a network connection, I couldn’t use Wi-Fi. My tethering options were Bluetooth or a USB cable. I chose to use USB.

What is USB Tethering?

USB tethering is a method of sharing your Android phone’s internet connection with other devices, such as a Windows PC, via a USB cable. It works when no Wi-Fi is available, or your computer lacks wireless capabilities.  In essence, your smartphone acts as a modem for the connected device, providing access to the internet using your mobile data plan.

It does offer some advantages.

  • Easier setup: Unlike creating hotspots or pairing Bluetooth-enabled gadgets together for connectivity purposes, setting up USB-tethered links requires minimal configuration.
  • Conserve battery:  Another advantage is that it can help conserve your phone’s battery life.
  • Faster speeds: These connections generally offer higher data transfer speeds than Bluetooth tethering. This also depends on your location and phone.
  • Better security: A wired connection reduces potential security risks associated with open wireless networks. This is more of an issue if you work from another location, like a cafe or library.

The main disadvantage of USB tethering is that it requires a wired connection between devices, which may not always be convenient for users on the go. Moreover, some smartphones may not support this feature natively or require additional drivers.

Check Your Mobile Carrier Data Plan

One concern when using tethering is some carriers charge extra for tethering. Since you’re sharing your phone’s internet connection with another device, keeping track of how much data you’re consuming while tethered is recommended. Your carrier may have specific plans or add-ons for tethering usage. Also, some plans may throttle the data speed when you hit a certain data cap.

I knew from experience that I would exceed my monthly allotment with this outage if I didn’t adjust my behavior or pay extra fees. And this is also an excellent time to see how you’re handling metered connections on your Windows PC. The last thing you want is some large Windows program automatically updating.

How to Set Up USB Tethering

These instructions are based on my Windows 11 setup, but they should work for other Android phones and Windows 10.

  1. Using a USB cable, plug one end into the phone’s charging port and the other into the computer or laptop USB port. Most USB cables handle both power and data.
  2. Open the Settings app on your Android phone. This usually shows as a gear icon.
  3. Tap on “Network & internet” or “Connections” (depending on your phone model).
  4. Confirm Data Saver is off.
  5. Tap “Hotspot & tethering.”
  6. Turn on “USB tethering.”

Once the steps are completed, your PC should access the internet via USB and your phone. You may notice your taskbar icon changes. Prior to this, I had the Wi-Fi icon.

Taskbar connection icon changed.

To verify tethering is active,

  1. Right-click on the network icon in your system tray (usually located at the bottom-right corner of your screen).
  2. Select “Network & Internet settings.”
  3. In the Status section, look for a message that says, “Connected.”  The icon will change and show a desktop and mobile phone icon.
New connection icon with device tethering.

USB Tethering Troubleshooting

If you encounter any issues using USB tethering, try these troubleshooting tips.

Check Your USB Cable

This step is best done before you need to do any tethering. And yes, it would be great if a standard symbol indicated the cable handled power and data. First, check that the USB cable linking your Android device and Windows PC functions properly and securely. If the cable is damaged or not fully plugged in, it may cause connectivity issues.

Another issue is the cable may be charge-only. We can use another USB preference to test this. To check if your USB cable handles data,

  1. Connect your phone to your PC with the USB cable.
  2. Navigate to Settings > Connected Devices.
  3. On Connected devices, tap USB.
  4. Under USB Preferences, tap File transfer / Android Auto.
  5. On your desktop, open Windows File Explorer.
  6. You should see your phone listed under This PC.
Pixel shows in Windows File Explorer after connecting USB cable.
My smartphone shows after enabling File Transfer.

If you don’t see your phone listed in File Explorer, either your cable doesn’t handle data, or you have Data Saver enabled in Android.

Missing or Corrupted Drivers

When you connect your mobile device to your PC, various drivers are installed on Windows. These drivers allow the two devices to communicate. Like all software, things can go wrong. For example, one set of drivers is called MTP, which stands for “Media Transfer Protocol.”  Some error messages you might see include the following:

  • Device Not Recognized
  • MTP USB Device Failed
  • Code 28 Errors
  • USB Device not installed properly

These issues can usually be resolved by updating the drivers through Windows Device Manager. The problem driver will probably show under your phone.

Enable USB Debugging on Your Android Phone

In some cases, enabling USB debugging on your Android device can help improve the connection between your phone and computer. To enable this feature:

  1. Navigate to Settings > About Phone > Software Information (or Build Number).
  2. Tap “Build Number” seven times. You’ll start seeing some messages on the 4th tap and then “You are now a developer.”
  3. Go back to Settings > Developer Options.
  4. Enable USB Debugging.

Restart Both Devices

If all else fails, try restarting your Android phone and Windows PC. Resetting their respective network settings sometimes resolves any lingering connection issues.

By following these troubleshooting tips, you should be able to resolve most USB tethering problems quickly and efficiently.

While it may not always be convenient, USB tethering provides a more secure and stable connection than wireless hotspots. So, the next time you’re in a pinch and need internet access, consider using USB tethering. Just make sure you’ve tested your USB cable and process first.