It’s rare to find a location that doesn’t have free Wi-Fi. Every Starbucks in the United States offers it, and many retail outlets from national chains to small businesses provide free Wi-Fi as a way to attract customers and give them an incentive to stay and buy a product or service. However, there are three major disadvantages to free Wi-Fi. First, it’s not always available when you need it. Second, the speed of the connection varies based on how many people are using it. Third, the connection is not secure and prone to snooping by tools like Firesheep.
Telecommunication companies have long understood the benefit of providing personal Wi-Fi for their customers. The initial devices were often large and difficult to configure since they required the proper drivers to be installed for a USB connection to be established. However, mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices soon shrunk in size and could eventually be used without the need to physically connect to the unit.
The benefits of mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices are numerous. They provide a secure high speed internet connection wherever you have cell service. Whether you need to keep the kids occupied on long road trips, convert an iPod Touch into a Skype-enabled phone, or get online at conferences with overburdened WiFi networks, here are a few devices that will let you take your own personal hotspot with you. (Note: I am only covering devices that do not require a physical connection and are battery powered in this article.)
Verizon MiFi 2200
Verizon uses Novatel’s MiFi 2200 for its mobile hotspot solution, and it allows five devices to connect to it using Wi-Fi. The Verizon MiFi 2200 connects to the Verizon network using the company’s 3G EVDO Rev A protocol which provides download speeds of up to 2000 kbps and upload speeds of up to 800 kbps. Connectivity to the device’s Wi-Fi hotspot is done via 802.11b or 802.11g. The 802.11g mode provides speed of up to 54 Mb/s. Battery life for Verizon MiFi 2200 is 4 hours of active use and 40 hours of standby time. The Verizon MiFi 2200 is free if you sign a $40 per month (for 250 MB of data) or $60 per month (for 5 GB of data) two year contract.
The recently released Verizon iPhone provides a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for up to three devices. Two additional devices can connect to it, but they have to use USB or Bluetooth. The Verizon iPhone’s hotspot uses Verizon’s 3G network and devices connect over Wi-Fi (the particular type of Wi-Fi has not been specified). The 16 GB Verizon iPhone costs $199 while the 32 GB version costs $299. The $30 unlimited data plan is soon coming to an end and will be replaced by various tiered data plans.
Verizon Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pre 2
Verizon’s Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pre 2 provide mobile hotspot access. You’ll have to pay $49 for the Palm Pre Plus and $149.99 for the Palm Pre 2 in addition to signing a two year contract. Both phones connect to the Verizon network over 3G and provide an 802.11b/g wireless network for connecting devices. The mobile hotspot feature is free on the Palm Pre Plus, but costs $20 per month for 2 GB of data on the Palm 2.
Sprint MiFi 2200
This is the same device as the Verizon MiFi 2200, but it has one significant difference. The Sprint MiFi 2200 has GPS enabled which allows it to be used with applications like Google Earth. The Sprint MiFi costs $100 and requires a two year contract costing $60 per month for 5 GB of data.
The Sprint Overdrive connects to the Sprint network via 4G which offers up to 1000 Mb/s download speeds. It supports up to five devices which connect via an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network. Battery life is 3 hours under active use and over a day in standby mode. While 4G coverage is expanding, it’s best to check the areas you frequently visit to make sure you will receive 4G connectivity. The Sprint Overdrive $100 after a $50 rebate and requires a $59.99 per month two year contract.