There’s a really cool solution to getting Internet access while traveling called MiFi (pronounced “My-Fi”). It is a small device that is basically two wireless components in one package: a wide area wireless cellular modem and a Wi-Fi access point. Verizon Wireless provided me with a MiFi unit to test a few weeks ago, and I finally had a trip scheduled in which I could try it out.
My wife and I attended my son Jason’s wedding in Maine (held at the beautiful Retreat at French’s Point) and stayed in the Belfast Bay Inn, a classy bed and breakfast right in the heart of Belfast, Maine. I set up our three notebook PCs: my Frost & Sullivan system, my personal system and my wife Alicia’s system.
In order to get the MiFi working, it has to be provisioned by Verizon Wireless (so it was a valid unit on the network) and then activated (my account was established with Verizon Wireless PR). With the help of Brenda Rainey in Verizon Wireless PR, the unit got provisioned to work and then activated as a demo unit.
Normally, the MiFi unit would require a two-year commitment at $40 for 250MB or $60 per month for 5GB of use. Obviously, since we carry around three notebook PCs, we would have normally had to sign up for three wide area wireless modem accounts: one for each notebook PC or three times $40 to $60 per month (or $120 to $180 per month).
To be sure, many hotels provide Wi-Fi but in many cases they charge anywhere from $9.95 to $19.95 for 24 hours of access. Some hotels-most notably Marriott Courtyard and similar mid-tier hotels that cater to the business traveler-provide free Wi-Fi access. But most of the time (independent of whether you purchased Wi-Fi access or not) the hotel requires you to input your hotel room number and then will only allow one computer to have access to that account number at one time.
MiFi on the Road
MiFi on the road
My wife Alicia and I spent our first night traveling to the wedding in the Hyatt Regency in Boston. Brenda was working to get my MiFi activated so I had to sign up for one day of Wi-Fi access through T-Mobile. The cost was $9.95 for 24 hours of access, but their system would only provide for one account access at a time.
We had to log out when done looking at e-mail and browsing on one system, log on with the other computer, and sort of continually switch access during that evening and the next morning before leaving for Maine. It was a pain to continually have to switch accounts to get Internet access for our three notebook PCs.
Brenda got my MiFi working the next day, so I set it up in the living area in the Belfast Bay Inn. In order to get it working, you have to attach the MiFi to one of your notebook PCs. The software to activate the MiFi unit self-loads. Once it’s activated, you can leave it connected-in which case it operates as a “tethered” wide area wireless access modem. But to make it work as a MiFi, you unplug it from the computer and press the lighted button on the unit. At that point, the access portion of the MiFi begins to transmit its service set identifier (SSID), which I could see from each of our notebook PCs.
The notebook PC shows the Wi-Fi AP with the name “Verizon” with the modem ID and notation as “Security-Enabled” (to make sure others can’t get unauthorized access and consume your allotted capacity). When you select it, Windows asks you to enter either a Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) key or password. After I entered the password (supplied on the back of the modem), I was able to get concurrent access for all three of our notebook PCs during the remainder of our trip.
Benefits of MiFi
Benefits of MiFi
MiFi is definitely a great solution when you are traveling and have more than one notebook PC and/or other Wi-Fi enabled devices in your family (from which you need or want to have Internet access). Obviously, if you only have one notebook PC, MiFi may be an overkill and, instead, you could just use a single wide area wireless access card.
But, if you find you travel more than four to five times a month, and are racking up more than $30 per month in Wi-Fi access charges at hotels, then getting wide area wireless could be more cost effective. And if you have others traveling with you (family or, perhaps, business associates), then MiFi is definitely a cost-effective solution.
Someday, MiFi functionality may be provided through your cell phone so that it would operate as a wide area wireless modem back to the cellular network and include software to allow the cell phone to operate as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your notebook PCs.
In the short-term, however, MiFi makes a lot of sense for many of us who travel a lot and need Internet access to more than one notebook PC. Wi-Fi is great at home and in the office to provide mobile access around the premises, but MiFi makes a lot of sense while traveling with multiple Internet access devices.
Another benefit of MiFi is convenience. Once it is set up, it operates just like a Wi-Fi AP for up to five Internet access devices. The one restriction of five concurrent Internet access devices seems reasonable: the wireless providers realize that the backend (the wireless wide area modem) has limited bandwidth compared to a home network. A home network today typically provides 6M bps download and 2M bps upload, whereas the cellular modem operates more like 600K bps: 1.4M bps download and 500 to 800K bps upload shared among all of the concurrent users.
As for limitations, I found that downloading a video from YouTube required me to let the buffer fill up instead of trying to watch it in real time immediately after selecting the video. You wouldn’t need to do that on a home network with higher bandwidth access. And I found it would randomly drop my VPN connection to the Frost & Sullivan network.
Today, MiFi is offered by both Verizon Wireless and Sprint and manufactured by Novatel Wireless. The Sprint version includes GPS, which could be handy if your cell phone doesn’t have it. I suspect that we’ll see a similar offering from AT&T Mobility before too long. A High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) version is currently being sold in Europe.
In my mind, MiFi may well be a candidate for Product of the Year.
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., is the VP and Chief Analyst with the Frost & Sullivan North American Information & Communication Technologies Practice. As a nationally recognized industry authority, he focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Since joining Frost & Sullivan in 2006, Dr. Purdy has been specializing in mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of Inside Mobile & Wireless, which provides industry insights and reaches over 100,000 readers per month.
For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people’s mind-sets, and developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, his ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile & wireless industry. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I’ll disclose it at that time.