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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.

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.

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