Personal mobile broadband connections have become ubiquitous in recent years. Everywhere you look, you can find someone accessing the Internet using a USB dongle, a 3G connection built into a laptop or netbook, or even a laptop tethered to a smartphone.
All of these solutions work fairly well-fairly well, that is, for an individual. Providing this kind of Internet access to a group of people is a tougher challenge.
Say your company is sending a group of salespeople on the road to meet with lots of clients. Internet access will be a necessity, and you can't rely on hotel or public Wi-Fi at all times. You could give each person an individual 3G mobile broadband account (with the requisite $50 to $60 monthly charge for each), or you could give the group one mobile hot spot device that will provide an office wireless network on the go.
That's the idea behind the Novatel MiFi 2200, a small (about the same dimensions and half the thickness of a deck of cards) device that provides 3G Internet access and Wi-Fi connectivity for as many as five wireless users.
Based on my tests, the MiFi is an attractive option for providing mobile Internet access for temporary offices, traveling work teams, meetings and many other situations where an Internet connection could be hard to come by.
The MiFi 2200 can run on Sprint and Verizon 3G networks; the unit I tested was configured to run on Verizon's EV-DO network.
The unit I tested had been preactivated to connect to the Verizon network, but users typically will need to activate the device upon receipt. This is done by using the supplied standard USB cable to connect the device to a PC. The device will ask to load activation software, which will complete the activation. Luckily, unless you decide to tether a single computer to the device, this is the last you need see of this software.
Once the MiFi 2200 is activated, it works pretty much like any other wireless access point you've ever used. It supports 802.11b/g, and I could easily connect Wi-Fi-enabled devices to it.
Once connected, I could check the device's status and make changes to settings by accessing the MiFi's management console through a browser (at the traditional 192.168.1.1 address). From here, I could see connection information, change security settings (the device supports WEP, WPA and WPA2) and do anything I could do with any other access point. I could also see how much of a charge the device's battery had left.
Of course, the most important thing about a device like this is the quality of the Internet connection. During tests, the MiFi's 3G connection was pretty much what you would expect.
In most tests, I got about 1.5M-bps downloads and 750M-bps uploads-slow compared with fiber or cable connections, but fast enough for most Internet tasks.
In fact, I was able to stream video at a fairly good quality (with only a few small hiccups), and a shared Web conferencing application worked very well. However, once I had four systems all connected to the device and using the Internet, things slowed up a bit, with browsing and e-mail still working fine but video and other bandwidth-intensive applications not working quite as well.
While the broadband connection was about what I expected, the Wi-Fi strength of the MiFi 2200 surprised me. Within the same room, all systems connected to the MiFi had strong connections, and sharing data between these systems was as fast as with any other 802.11g connection I've ever used.
In addition, while the specs for the MiFi 2200 list network coverage at 30 feet, I was able to walk outside at a distance of more than 60 feet and still have a decent, slightly below midrange Wi-Fi connection. And this was while running the MiFi 2200 from its battery.
Speaking of the battery, it also exceeded the specs: I got close to 5 hours of battery life with continuous use. The device can be charged by connecting it to a PC through USB or by using the charger that comes with the MiFi 2200.
While the battery worked well, if you are using the MiFi 2200 in an office, hotel suite, conference room or other situation where it will stay on for a day or more, you'll most likely want to use the supplied power cord.
As is typical with mobile devices that are attached to carrier data plans, pricing for the Novatel MiFi 2200 can vary. (One company recently offered it free with a two-year data plan.) Verizon is currently charging $149 with a two-year data plan commitment, with a $50 online discount. The data plans on Verizon are $39.99 per month for a 250MB allowance or $59.99 per month for a 5GB allowance.
These prices aren't cheap, although they seem more reasonable when compared with purchasing the same data plans for five traveling employees.
To get more information on the Novatel MiFi 2200, go to http://www.novatelwireless.com/.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected]