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Mobile Hotspot Buyer's Guide

Wi-Fi, 3G, and now 4G services enable broadband on notebooks, smartphones, and other wireless devices practically anywhere. Here's a guide to the latest offerings from T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint.


A Wi-Fi hotspot was the original plan offered by T-Mobile for its T-Mobile@Home service. It used a Wi-Fi-enabled cell phone that would let you make calls over the Internet by connecting to whatever Wi-Fi service was available. You avoided per-minute charges, effectively making calls for free. When there was no Wi-Fi hotspot available, your phone used the normal T-Mobile network and was subject to whatever charges you had signed up for in your plan.

It worked, but, as you've probably experienced with your own forays into wireless connectivity, it doesn't travel very well. As you leave the area covered by one Wi-Fi hotspot, you literally drop the connection and then (hopefully) pick it up -- without losing the call -- after connecting and negotiating addresses with the next hotspot you encounter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wi-Fi is about as reliable for this task as your cousin is believable when he says next week he'll pay you the money he owes you.

T-Mobile now uses a USB Laptop Stick, either the WebConnect Rocket or WebConnect Jet broadband modem. These are HSPA+ and 3G ($49.99) or just 3G ($19.99), respectively, devices that allow you to connect to the T-Mobile network. (HSPA is high speed packet access, a hybrid protocol that is somewhat faster than 3G.) You plug the stick into your laptop or other portable device, and you're connected.

While most will testify that cell phone coverage can be spotty at times ("Can you hear me now?"), it is an order of magnitude better than Wi-Fi. T-Mobile has also teamed with Dell to offer an Inspiron Mini 10 ($199.99) that's both Wi-Fi and 3G enabled. All three of the options require a two-year contract commitment and each contract covers one device.


Verizon's Intelligent Mobile Hotspot takes a slightly different tack. It does offer wireless modem variants similar to T-Mobile's -- the USB760 for $9.99, the PC770 express card for $49.99, the UMW190 for $49.99, and the AD3700 for $79.99, the latter two being global devices. But it also has a variety of Gateway and HP Netbooks ranging in price from $99.99 to $199.99, and the jewel in its crown is the MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot at $49.99. All of the prices mentioned are after rebates and require a two-year plan.

Essentially, the MiFi 2200 is 3G router that will let you connect up to five devices to it using Wi-Fi. The router itself is 3G EVDO Rev. A. As we navigate the alphabet of protocols, EVDO means evolution data only, or sometimes evolution data optimized. It's a hybrid technology (also used by Sprint and Alltel) that offers download speeds in the range of 600-1400 kbps (with bursts up to 2000 kbps) and upload speeds ranging between 500 and 800 kbps.

On the Wi-Fi side, it's an 802.11b/g device -- which is not the latest, 802.11n Wi-Fi technology. The maximum speed available from the "g" end of things is 54 Mb/s. It's about half the speed of current 802.11n. (Don't even think about 802.11b!)

According to Verizon, "the MiFi 2200 device is about the size of eight stacked credit cards and weighs just over 2 ounces, so it's ultra-portable," but it packs a much larger punch. The MiFi 2200 connects to the Verizon network via its 3G protocol and then up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices can be connected to it.

Big deal, right? Well, yes. The MiFi 2200 is battery-powered and can supposedly be active for up to 4 hours or in standby mode for 40 hours. If that sounds like specs from a cell phone, it's true. You can use the MiFi 2200 anywhere you would normally have cell phone access -- like in your car -- and take your Wi-Fi hotspot with you where ever you go. It gives "browsing the information superhighway" a ring of truth.

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