Fact of Life? MiFi Benefits Just Don't Add Up

By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2009-06-25 Print this article Print

An eWEEK Labs analyst gets technically faced by his father when a discussion about the MiFi mobile hot spot comes up. After some quick thinking (and research), the MiFi as wireless connectivity option gets a big, fat 'no.'

"Kid, let's talk."

I'd been dreading this moment.  My father, in town for my wedding, was surely going to try gleefully to embarrass me with a birds-and-bees talk delivered a quarter-century too late.

"Do your mother and I need MiFi?"

MiFi?  My mind raced, baffled as to what he was talking about.  Surprisingly, this was going to be a tech conversation, and, given the word "MiFi," I figured it had something to do with Wi-Fi.  But the term wasn't ringing a bell.  My mind raced around looking for the answer, but it came up with nothing concrete. 

Instead of trying to bluff my way through the conversation, I instead shamefully admitted the term wasn't familiar-giving my father an entirely different feeling of glee than I anticipated he would get from our talk. With my tail between my legs, I scurried off to look it up quickly on my iPhone, learning that MiFi is Novatel Wireless' name for its new mobile hot spot-a 3G-to-Wi-Fi bridge that claims a little more smarts under the hood than similar cell-to-Wi-Fi routers that have been available for the last few years. 

I later discovered that the public library that my parents visit when they are in town closed its doors sometime this year. With their primary option for Internet connectivity evaporated, they were slogging along using AOL dial-up while in somewhat desperate need of something much faster. 

A little more research uncovered that Novatel now has models available for either EvDO Rev. A (MiFi 2200) and HSPA (MiFi 2352) data networks, and that up to five Wi-Fi devices could connect to the unit to share the bandwidth.  That part sounded good, as did the fact that both Verizon and Sprint currently offer a MiFi unit for $100 after rebates and with a two-year contract. 

But as is always the case once mobile operators get involved, the terms of the data plans available for those devices ranged from untenable to outrageous.  Both carriers offer the typical $60-per-month plan that affords only 5GB of data-plans that have become the norm for laptop data devices or tethered smartphones. So, for the life of the contract, my folks would actually be looking at an outlay of $1,540 before taxes and fees.

Verizon also offers a laughably cheaper alternative: $40 per month for 250MB. If the MiFi was your primary data source, I can't even imagine that capacity working without incurring massive additional monthly fees. Two computers pulling daily anti-virus updates and monthly Windows patches, plus my parents' actual data needs-which include a lot of large PowerPoint presentations-would trample all over that limit easily.

Oddly, both carriers have provided (almost) exactly what I wanted, but they've done it in a way that isn't functional for the way people compute today, particularly on PCs. Back in January I wrote that carriers need to innovate on pricing plans, and create ways for users to share a bucket of wireless WAN connectivity across multiple devices.  Specifically, I wrote that for $60 a month, I thought 25GB across five devices seemed a reasonable price point. 

Well, with MiFI, I get the connectivity across five devices (albeit not in the way I previously envisaged) but with only 20 percent of the bandwidth I deemed appropriate at the time. And my previous estimations were based on alternative devices-smartphones, wireless picture frames and so on-rather than the bandwidth-cap-hogging laptops and desktops that could commonly be used with the MiFi. 

In the end, I advised my parents against the MiFi route. Instead, I ordered them DSL through a second-tier provider-$30 bucks a month with no term-of-service commitments and $100 for a modem/Wi-Fi router. The two-year outlay would be $820 before taxes and fees, although, without a two-year commitment requirement, that figure  is a nothing more than a worst-case scenario.

Or maybe the worst-case scenario is my Dad's ongoing teasing about his knowing something tech-related that I did not.

I'm so ashamed.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at agarcia@eweek.com.

Andrew cut his teeth as a systems administrator at the University of California, learning the ins and outs of server migration, Windows desktop management, Unix and Novell administration. After a tour of duty as a team leader for PC Magazine's Labs, Andrew turned to system integration - providing network, server, and desktop consulting services for small businesses throughout the Bay Area. With eWEEK Labs since 2003, Andrew concentrates on wireless networking technologies while moonlighting with Microsoft Windows, mobile devices and management, and unified communications. He produces product reviews, technology analysis and opinion pieces for eWEEK.com, eWEEK magazine, and the Labs' Release Notes blog. Follow Andrew on Twitter at andrewrgarcia, or reach him by email at agarcia@eweek.com.

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