February 23, 2006
Wi-Fi to Go: The Hot Spot in a Box
YOU know what would be so cool? A portable Wi-Fi hot spot. Whenever you wanted Internet access, you wouldn't have to hunt for a wireless coffee shop or pay $24 a night to your hotel.
Instead, you'd travel with a little box. Plug it into a power outlet — or even your car's cigarette lighter — and boom, you and everyone within 200 feet could get onto the Internet at high speed, without wires.
Actually, such boxes exist. They come from companies like Kyocera, Junxion and Top Global, and they're every bit as awesome as they sound. (Unfortunately, the category is so new that it has no agreed-upon name. "Portable hot spot" is descriptive but unwieldy. "Cellular gateway" is a bit cryptic. Kyocera's term, "mobile router," may be as good as any.)
Before you start thinking that you've died and gone to Internet heaven, however, you should know that these boxes don't work alone. Each requires the insertion of a PC laptop card provided by a cellular carrier like Verizon, Sprint or Cingular. The card provides the Internet connection, courtesy of those companies' 3G ("third generation") high-speed cellular data networks. The box just rebroadcasts that connection as a Wi-Fi signal so that all nearby computers — not just one privileged laptop — can go online.
With those PC cards, you can go online anywhere there's a cellular signal: in a taxi, on a bus, in a waiting room or wherever. In major cities, the speed is delightful, like a D.S.L. or slowish cable modem (400 to 700 kilobits a second). In other areas, you can still go online, but only slightly faster than with a dial-up modem. (Also note that uploading is far slower than downloading.)
All right, go ahead, ask it: If you can already outfit your laptop with one of these miraculous cards, why do you need a mobile router that translates the cellular connection into a Wi-Fi one?
First, not all computers have the necessary card slot. ( Apple's iBooks and new MacBook Pro laptops come to mind.) Second, a mobile router can accommodate machines with no wireless features at all — like desktop computers — thanks to standard Ethernet network jacks on the back. (The Kyocera has four, the Junxion two and the Top Global one.)
Above all, Wi-Fi lets lots of computers share the same Internet signal. Cellular PC-card service is very expensive: $60 a month for unlimited use ($80 if you don't also have a voice plan). That's a lot to pay for a single computer to go online. A mobile router opens up that signal to any computer within about 200 feet; $60 a month is a lot more palatable when 10 or 20 of you are sharing it.
MOBILE routers have become essential equipment for traveling groups. Bus and train companies are experimenting with these boxes to see if having high-speed Wi-Fi on board appeals to passengers. These boxes are also becoming standard amenities for the casts of TV shows and movies and for rock bands, so that they can check e-mail or surf the Web between takes or whenever they're on location or on the tour bus.
But a mobile router might make sense even in stationary environments. Small businesses can use one as a backup connection when the power goes out. (A mobile router can draw its power from a car or battery pack.)
Other people are canceling their home D.S.L. or cable modem service altogether. Instead of paying twice for Internet access — for a cable modem and a cellular laptop plan — they use the cellular card at home and on the road and save a lot of money.
To use a mobile router, you insert your cellular laptop card (which must first be activated in a Windows laptop). Then you connect the router to your computer using an Ethernet cable (included). You type the box's numeric address into your Web browser, and presto: you're viewing its configuration page. Here's where you indicate which brand of PC card you have (Novatel, Sierra Wireless or whatever), turn on password protection, and fiddle with pages and pages of network and security settings, if you're into that sort of thing.
The Junxion box is a biggish slab of folded sheet metal, unimpressive except for its bright green paint job, measuring 6.3 by 10.3 by 1.1 inches and costing $600. As you can tell from the price, Junxion seeks corporate buyers, not individuals. Yet only a few of its features cry out "corporate." (One of them lets a network geek configure a fleet of Junxion boxes by remote control, from the comfort of company headquarters.)
For $600, you might expect more than two measly status lights, and geeks might expect the wireless signal to be 802.11g instead of the older "b" variant. On the other hand, the Junxion has some neat features, including the ability to greet colleagues with a splash screen. ("Welcome to Dave's free Wi-Fi highway! Click Connect to continue, and don't forget to thank Dave by dropping off cash or baked goods at his cubicle.")
The new Kyocera KR1, developed jointly with D-Link, is more attractive for a couple of important reasons. First, it costs only a third as much ($200 after rebate). It's also much smaller and better-looking (8.5 by 5.3 by 1.3 inches) and feels more like a finished commercial product.
Note, however, that the KR1 works only with Verizon and Sprint cards — or as the techies might say, it works only on EV-DO networks. Its rivals, by contrast, can accommodate almost any card from any service, including the new BroadbandConnect service from Cingular (so far available in 16 cities).
On the other hand, only the KR1 can draw its Internet connection from certain EV-DO cellphones instead of a PC card. That is, you can connect the Samsung A890 or Audiovox 8940, for example, with a U.S.B. cable. The phone becomes a sort of Internet antenna for the router.
If the Junxion box represents the complete absence of industrial design, then Top Global's 3G Phoebus represents the height of it. This mobile router is a white, gray or black plastic pyramid (7 by 7 by 5.5 inches) that makes no attempt to look like a piece of networking equipment. You either love that approach or you don't.
Design aside, the Phoebus has a lot to recommend it. It's the only model with an on-off switch — a clicky chrome marble on the front. It's also the only model that when used with Sprint or Verizon cards, automatically configures itself; you can skip the setup steps involving the Ethernet cable and Web browser. You literally plug the thing in, insert the card, and start surfing. That feature, and its super-clear browser-based Web setup page, makes the Phoebus the simplicity champion.
The only causes for pauses are the single Ethernet jack in the back, the price ($400) and the difficulty of finding a place to buy the thing. (Homemade-looking Web sites like americanevdo.net carry it.)
There's no overstating the joy of carrying around your own Wi-Fi hot spot, ready for your whole gang to enjoy wherever you can find a power outlet or even a car's cigarette-lighter socket.
Not everyone is happy about this product category, however. Verizon, in particular, strongly objects.
"Broadband access is designed for individual customers," said Brenda Raney, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman. "When customers use unauthorized devices to share the service, they are in violation of their service agreements."
Yet this objection should sound distinctly familiar to anyone who remembers the dawn of the cable modem era. The cable companies originally hoped to charge $40 a month for each computer in your home, and did everything in their power to dissuade people from hooking up network routers that could share the signal. In the end, of course, common sense won, the cable companies lost, and now just about every home D.S.L. or cable modem signal is shared among two or more computers.
If you like the idea of a mobile router, any of these hot-spots-in-a-box will do the trick. But considering its polish and low price, the Kyocera KR1 has the edge (provided you're a Sprint or Verizon customer). Until the United Nations finally gets around to blanketing the earth with an uninterrupted cloud of Wi-Fi coverage, these gadgets are the next best thing to finding a wireless connection everywhere you go.