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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.

InformationWeek Staff

April 28, 2010

9 Min Read

Poking around the annals of technology, you'll probably come across a few product names that didn't quite do justice to the items they represent. The names of those products needed time to mature, as did the technology itself.

It's still happening: Try "mobile hotspot" on for size.

A hotspot is a place where you can connect your netbook, notebook, or smartphone so you can log on to the Internet. That much is obvious to most of us.

But what does "mobile" mean? Does that mean the hotspot moves around? Do we have to chase it? Or will it find us? Worse still, how do you buy (or sell) a mobile hotspot?

Welcome to the world of Apple's Lisa and Microsoft's BOB -- names that, like mobile hotspot, just don't do justice to the products they represent.

Contrary to the way it's been treated so far, mobile hotspot technology is something all mobile professionals should know something about. Besides, over the next 10 years it's probably going to be the predominant way we connect with anything -- or anything will connect with us.

Let's start by describing the most basic form of hotspot: That wireless router you have in your home or apartment creates a hotspot that you use to connect (wirelessly) to the Internet with your desktop, notebook, or netbook. When you lug your laptop to Starbucks or any other location that supplies you with a similar environment, you're using a hotspot they've created for you and their other customers.

By definition, these are Wi-Fi hotspots that can use any of the available 801.x Wi-Fi protocols (but hopefully all use the latest and fastest 802.11n). These are also mobile hotspots because you can connect to the Internet at any location that affords you an accessible Wi-Fi connection.

Then there are 3G (3rd generation) and 4G (4th generation) hotspots that cell phone service providers maintain. The coverage is far better than with Wi-Fi and the hand-off from one cell tower to another is indeed seamless -- as opposed to Wi-Fi, which can be bumpy at best.

And of course there's the cloud. IT has been drooling over "the cloud" for decades. Essentially, it's a metaphor for services and/or facilities that are not provided or maintained by you. It just exists out there "in the clouds," owned by a third party, and all you do is pay a fee to use it -- not to own or repair it. That's exactly what your cell phone connects to: This cloud of service operated by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and other providers that you've signed a fat two-year contract to use. By definition, any hotspot offered by these services is cloud-based. Some simply provide connectivity while others may offer you data storage (messages, photos, and so forth) opportunities in their cloud.

Words to the wise: You're probably already familiar with the type of speed bumps associated with cloud-based connectivity with your cell phone. Most of the time, people can hear you but, every once in a while you'll experience a drop-out or two. That's not a disaster for voice. Consider, however, how problematic that could be for cloud-based data services. As well, the same security issues exist that have plagued your home wireless. Hackers love challenges. Clouds are real big. T-Mobile

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

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.

Verizon's Palm 3G Mobile Hotspot adds another option. While the Palm Pre Plus and the Palm Pixi Plus haven't caught on as Palm had hoped they would, a Verizon promotion makes them worth taking a closer look at.

First and foremost, Verizon has dropped the price of the Pre Plus to $49 and the Pixi Plus to $29. Those prices are significantly lower than the starting amounts were and, naturally, they require a two-year contract. For the record, the Pixi Plus is a 3G device while the Pre Plus, also sporting 3G, adds 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connectivity.

They're just phones, however, so why the horn blowing? As part of the promotion, Verizon has included free hotspot access on both of these models. That four-letter word, "free," is the operating concept here -- and makes service quite inexpensive compared to what other carriers charge.

Sprint

Sprint has its own version of the MiFi 2200 (free with a two-year plan) but its latest claim to fame is the Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot ($99 with a two-year plan) it sources from Sierra Wireless.

Both are battery-powered devices and the Overdrive does everything the MiFi does but, with the addition of 4G, it has the potential to do it much faster. How much faster? Well, a 4G device should be able to provide anywhere from 100 Mb/s to 1000 Mb/s, depending on usage and locale. As well, 4G is absolutely, positively, maybe guaranteed to offer seamless hand-offs as you leave one coverage area and enter another. The only problem is that there aren't that many 4G areas just yet -- but they're coming, and the Overdrive offers 3G compatibility should 4G service not be available.

The Overdrive is a little larger (3.1 x 3.1 x 0.6 inches) than the MiFi 2200 and weighs just a bit more (4.5 oz). It's rated for roughly 3 hours of continuous use or as long as 1.5 days in standby mode.

While it's important that you're able to connect as many as five devices via Wi-Fi to the Sprint network while you Web walk, the real key here is the 4G service. It certainly means faster music and video downloads so the kids can entertain themselves sitting in the back seat of the car and never bother you with a single, "Are we there yet?" But consider the possibilities for teleconferencing or other business activities when you're staying at that hotel where the Wi-Fi service has just fallen through the floor.

Do your homework here. If you're not in a 4G coverage area presently, make sure you have a realistic time-table for when you might be. Do the same research for the places you travel. If you're going to be stuck with 3G service with no end in sight, you're better off with the MiFi 2200.

For Further Reading

Verizon Slashes Palm Smartphone Prices

Sprint Offers iPad WiMax Service

Turn Your Laptop Into A WiFi Hotspot

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