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    Wi-Fi making way for MiFi in business communications arsenal

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver May 4-10, 2010; issue #1071

    High Tech Office column

    It’s safe to assume that you’re all familiar with “Wi-Fi,” the wireless networking standard that allows notebooks and other devices to get online in homes, airport lounges, cafés, hotels and increasingly in places of work.

    It doesn’t, however, stand for anything. It’s a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance industry association.

    Are you ready for MiFi? Again, not an acronym (and no hyphen). Also a trademark, in this case, owned by device manufacturer Novatel Wireless. But like brand names Kleenex and Xerox, it’s starting to be applied generically to devices that connect to a cellular data network and share the Internet connection locally using Wi-Fi.

    That’s harder to describe than to use.

    I’ve recently had the loan of a pair of devices from Rogers, one marketed as a Rogers Rocket Hub (actually a Sony Ericsson W35 device), the other a brand name Novatel MiFi 2372.

    The Rocket Hub ($150 with two-year plan, $400 with no plan) is about the size of a paperback novel and isn’t designed for portability. It needs to be plugged into an electric outlet. It connects to Rogers’ high-speed data network and can share the Internet connection via wired network cables with up to four computers or via Wi-Fi with up to 10 devices.

    As an added bonus, there’s a phone plug on the side – you can plug in and use a standard phone. The phone connects to the cellphone network, not voice-over-IP, with unlimited local calling.

    The target market: home users and small businesses that aren’t well-serviced by either ADSL or cable Internet providers. It could also be handy for families with a summer cabin or on holiday: pack it along, plug it in and take your Internet connection (and home phone) with you.

    The Novatel 2372 ($50 on a three-year plan, $250 with no plan; also available through Bell) is more portable. It’s battery-powered (with four hours of battery life) and pocket-sized. The smaller size leaves out the wired network ports and the phone plug, and it will connect to a maximum of five Wi-Fi devices. (Connecting to multiple devices drains the battery faster.) It includes GPS positioning (Windows only) and a memory card port. Plugged via USB into a PC or Mac, it doubles as a wireless modem, providing Internet connections to that single device.

    Its portability gives it a different set of uses than the larger device: throw it in a bag and use it in a hotel room. Or on long car trips – there’s an optional car charger – to keep passengers (not the driver, please!) connected while travelling. Use one with a Wi-Fi-only iPad model for Internet access that’s not limited to available wireless hotspots.

    Assuming access to the mobile data network, setup and use is straightforward: plug it in, let it find the data network – with the Novatel device, you need to charge the battery first (even if you’re using it plugged in) – and watch it appear on your computer’s list of available Wi-Fi networks. Enter the encryption key, and you’re online.

    Rogers promises up to 7.2 megabits of bandwidth, depending on the strength of its data signal at your location.
    Running an online Internet speed test, I got download speeds of about two megabits, slower than my home Shaw cable results, but plenty fast enough for casual Internet use, including watching online video.

    As with all mobile networking devices, the upfront purchase price is only a fraction of the total cost. Rogers offers several data-only plans that range from $35 per month for up to three gigabytes of data to $60 per month for up to 10 gigabytes. Use of the phone line on the Rocket Hub adds $15/month. Favicon

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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