Mi-Fi surviving despite smartphone hotspot competition

Dedicated portable mobile hotspot devices evolving and seeing interest from small and midsize businesses in emerging countries such as India, due to infrastructure advantages, analyst says.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Although Mi-Fi devices, or wireless routers that act as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, face competition from smartphones with similar capabilities, they are becoming popular in emerging markets, says analyst.

Ajay Sunder, senior director for Asia-Pacific ICT Practice at Frost & Sullivan, told ZDNet Asia that Mi-Fi devices are still at an evolving stage. "The new range of smartphones, some of them which can act as wireless hotspotshave made the users a bit cautious about Mi-Fi devices," he said.

However, the device has drawn the interest from emerging countries such as India. "Initial adoption of Mi-Fi is by tech-savvy early adopters but the introduction of Mi-Fi devices in emerging economies like India is seeing interest from small and midsize businesses," said Sunder.

Indian operator Bharti Airtel was in talks with Mi-Fi manufacturers to introduce LTE-enabled Mi-Fi devices in the country as 4G smartphones will not be introduced until next year, reported The Economic Times.

According to Sunder, the key draw of Mi-Fi devices is the provisioning of up to 5 access points using only one device point.

Another contributing factor for the continued popularity of mobile Web access, is the lack of fixed line infrastructure, especially in rural areas due to prohibitive costs, according to research firm Digital Strategy Consulting.

Tang Siew Wai, marketing director for Huawei device South-Pacific region at Huawei, noted that some users prefer to use a dedicated Mi-Fi device over smartphone tethering. Besides functioning as a wireless access hub, using Mi-Fi as a hotspot will not drain the smartphone's battery, he said.

Mi-Fi roaming operator dependent
Fixing up Mi-Fi devices overseas can be a varied experience, as data roaming settings are operator dependent, said the Huawei executive, adding that data roaming is automated if the user has activated the service. 

Singapore operator M1 also does not see issues for data roaming with Mi-Fi devices. In an e-mail statement, Petrina Teoh, senior manager for corporate communications at M1, noted that users can roam using Mi-Fi devices as well as smartphones as the service is not device-specific.

She did note that for Mi-Fi roaming to be successful, the SIM card must be set up to enable roaming, as one would need to do for a smartphone.

"When a network registration request is sent from a user in a foreign country or network, the request will be transmitted back to M1's Home Location Register (HLR)," Teoh explained, adding access onto the foreign network will be allowed as long as the user's mobile roaming capability is enabled.

However, problems might arise if a user decides to use a foreign SIM on the Mi-Fi device, said Tang. "In certain cases, one time APN configuration may be required," said Tang.

In the case of a smartphone, the changing of APN can be done directly on the phone. However, when a Mi-Fi device cannot recognize the foreign carrier's APN, users will need to connect the Mi-Fi device to a computer to manually change the APN.

Tang said that the company customizes the settings in its Mi-Fi dongles to fit the local market. For example in Singapore, Huawei has worked with local operators StarHub, M1 and SingTel to ensure that their APN network settings are recognized when connected to Huawei's Mi-Fi dongles, said Tang.


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