If it works as well in "real life" as it did last week at a lunch meeting on
DC's Pennsylvania Avenue, Novatel Wireless' "MiFi" could be quite something.
The device, which may retail for around $200, or less with a carrier's subsidy, is
a little shorter than an Apple iPhone and somewhat thinner. It combines mobile data
communications with a tiny Wi-Fi "router" that'll share its signal with
neighboring devices over 802.11b and 802.11g connections, tech speak for speeds up
to 54 Megabits per second (Mbps). The mobile data can be either CDMA- or GSM-based,
or, more simply, run on either Sprint's, Verizon's or AT&T's networks.
None of these firms - which have U.S.-based relationships with San Diego-based
Novatel - has confirmed plans to offer the MiFi device, said Rob Hadley, a senior
technical advisor to the firm, who previously was Novatel's senior vice president
for worldwide sales and marketing. T-Mobile, according to Mr. Hadley, works with
Novatel Wireless products in Europe, but apparently not here.
The briefing, therefore, was very much like the "concept car" demos popular at
the annual auto shows in Detroit and elsewhere, although Mr. Hadley predicts MiFi
will be available "within the first half of 2009," and probably closer to during
the first three months of the year. And, unlike the concept cars, I was able to step
in and take a "test drive," as it were.
I did that using the iPhone and it's Wi-Fi connectivity. A quick switch to that
feature and the "name" of Mr. Hadley's MiFi unit popped up; connection was
instantaneous and I was able to surf the Web and download e-mail with ease. If I had
a Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, or VOIP, phone that used Wi-Fi, I could have made
calls using that device, too. Equip a digital camera with a (homonymic, but
unrelated) Eye-Fi Wireless SD card, and I could use the MiFi to send pictures
from the camera to the Flickr online service, or to The Washington Times'
newsroom, if I desired. There's a lot of possible uses for the product and the
service it provides.
Moreover, Mr. Hadley said, the device is programmable: you (or a corporate IT
department) could create various small applications for the MiFi that would have it
grab e-mail overnight, and then download the items to your computer in the morning.
Other apps could help those without computers receive printouts of e-mail using a
Wi-Fi compatible printer.
Final pricing isn't nailed down, and wireless data tariffs haven't been
confirmed. Right now, Mr. Hadley speculated the MiFi would merit a data fee of
around $60 per month for as much as 5 gigabytes of data transfer, the same as many
other wireless plans.
The market, however, could push for change in this regard: while most of us are
happy to pay "X" dollars per month for high speed Internet at home, and another
"Y" amount for smartphones that offer texting and Web browsing, adding "Z"
dollars for the MiFi might be a bit much, especially at $720 or so for service each
year, unless there's a compelling (read: business or tax-deductable) reason. Thus,
there's some speculation that perhaps carriers will cut fees or bundle the MiFi
with other services.
And if there's a fear that using the MiFi and a VOIP phone will circumvent other
revenue for telcos, I'd like to suggest that the smart firms out there will
realize that service revenue is service revenue. If we can get everything in one bag
for one price, so much the better.
As mentioned, the MiFi demonstration was just that - a demonstration. When I get a
chance to use one, you'll read about that here.