Mobile hotspots are heating up

After a slow start, mobile hotspots may be ready to go mainstream. Wireless operators are deploying more advanced 4G networks and new types of devices such as Apple's iPad are vying to get onto them.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

After a slow start, mobile hotspots may be ready to go mainstream. Wireless operators are deploying more advanced 3G and 4G networks--with average speeds comparable to DSL--delivering the fatter pipes required to accommodate multimedia applications. And it's not just smartphones and laptops anymore. New categories of devices from smartbooks to e-book readers to tablets are all vying to get onto wireless networks. Though AT&T will sell the Apple iPad with 3G, for example, both Sprint and Clearwire have been hinting that a 4G mobile hotspot is a better way to get the WiFi-enabled iPad online. At CTIA last week, several hardware companies and wireless carriers announced new products related to mobile hotspots.

Franklin Wireless, a company that primarily sells wireless broadband USB modems, announced two new mobile hotspots, along with several other products. The R536 WiMax Wave II is a hotspot that supports both 4G WiMax and 3G EV-DO Rev. A. The R526 is EV-DO only. Franklin's previous mobile hotspot, the CXR-100, required a separate USB modem. The new hotspots have integrated modems and are smaller and lighter than many competing products, weighing only 2.5 ounces. The R526 will be available in April and the R536 will follow in May. Franklin has not announced pricing. In addition to the mobile hotspot, Franklin announced a new version of its dual-mode (WiMax and EV-DO Rev. A.) USB modem, the U600, and an EV-DO Rev. A embedded module, the M210.

Novatel Wireless popularized this category with its little MiFi mobile hotspot (even though others such as Cradlepoint and Franklin Wireless have been selling them for years). At CTIA the company did not announce any updates to the MiFi 2200 itself, but it did release a new cloud-based application--first demonstrated at Mobile World Congress along with other software such as a VPN and photo-sharing app for the intelligent hotspot.

The cloud service, Nomadesk's NovaDrive, gives you unlimited storage to back-up, synchronize and share files from your laptop or any other device connected wirelessly to the MiFi. NovaDrive includes several security features such as 256-bit encryption, the ability to wipe personal data from a lost device or conversely to restore data to a device, and even the ability to locate a missing gadget on Google Maps. NovaDrive is a standalone service that works with or without the MiFi, but the intelligent hotspot makes it more compelling. For example, Novatel said in a statement that it planned to extend the application so that it can synchronize files directly from an SD card (the MiFi has a card slot)--a quick and easy way to upload and share photos from anywhere.

The NovaDrive client works with both Windows and Mac OS X, and the Personal Fileserver with unlimited storage is about $50 per year and the Team Fileserver, which adds sharing and collaboration features is $15 per month. You can download a 30-day free trial here.

Like Novatel, Sierra Wireless already sells a mobile hotspot, the AirCard W801, which works with both 4G WiMax and 3G EV-DO Rev. A. Sierra Wireless did not announce a new hotspot at CTIA, but it did announce that its Gobi2000 embedded CDMA/W-CDMA modules will be available on all Panasonic Toughbooks; and its wireless broadband USB modems, ExpressCards and embedded MiniCards now use Windows 7's Device Stage feature, which should make them easier to use.

Most of these devices are sold through the wireless carriers. Just as with mobile phones, the USB modems and mobile hotspots that they offer depend on their networks.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Clearwire announced that it would sell a new version of its Clear Spot mobile router with an integrated 4G WiMax/EV-DO radio. The current Clear Spot, which Clearwire has been offering for about a year, is a branded version of Cradlepoint's PHS300 Personal WiFi Hotspot, which requires a separate USB modem. It costs $140 plus the cost of the USB modem. Clear data plans starts at $40, but that's 4G only; plans that auto-switch to 3G in areas where WiMax is not available start at $65. Some CTIA reports stated that Franklin was showing a version of the R536 with a Clear logo, so chances are good that Clearwire's new mobile hotspot will be one and the same.

Earlier this year, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sprint announced its Overdrive 3G/4G mobile hotspot, a branded version of the Sierra Wireless AirCard W801 that Sprint sells for $100 (after rebates) with a monthly $60 plan that includes unlimited 4G and 5GB of 3G data. Sprint also offers the 3G-only MiFi 2200 is free (after rebates) with a $60 plan that includes 5GB of data. Sprint's hottest mobile hotspot, however, is the HTC Evo 4G, which is not only the industry's first 4G WiMax smartphone but also doubles as a hotspot for up to eight devices. During his keynote at CTIA, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse predicted that these mobile hotspots would lead to the development of lots of new mobile devices without wireless WAN because they can get onto the 4G network using WiFi. "The real revolution is this whole idea of mobile hotspots and almost everything having mobile on it," he said. Sprint has not announced pricing for the Evo 4G or its accompanying WiFi hotspot plan.

Among the U.S. operators, Verizon Wireless has been most aggressive with its plans for another type of 4G network, known as LTE (Long-Term Evolution), that it says will be available to 100 million people in 25 to 30 markets by the end of this year. But for now it is stuck with 3G only. Verizon sells the MiFi 2200 for $50 (after online discounts) with plans that start at $40 per month for 250MB or $60 per month for 5GB. It also sells the Palm Pre Plus and the Palm Pixi Plus with its 3G Mobile Hotspot feature (connects up to five devices) for an additional $40 per month. With the a two-year contact, the Palm Pre Plus is $150 and the Palm Pixi Plus is $80--and both are buy one, get one free.

AT&T continues to steer clear of mobile hotspots--most likely because it already has its hands full keeping the network running smoothly with the iPhone and, coming soon, the iPad. At CTIA Wireless, AT&T announced a product that, rather than put more devices on its network, helps offload traffic. When you make calls using your cell phone from home, AT&T's MicroCell, a femtocell developed by Cisco, routes those calls over your cable or DSL connection. The MicroCell is $150 if the minutes count against your AT&T plan or $50 (after rebates) with a $20 per month plan and the minutes won't count toward individual or Family Talk plan. While AT&T isn't pushing mobile hotspots or smartphones--and most moves by AT&T and Apple suggest that they will instead go to lengths to block tethering, let alone hotspots that support multiple devices--it does have the largest network of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S.

The real surprise is why mobile hotspots haven't already caught on with consumers. In a related post today on News.com, Marguerite Reardon notes several possible reasons: consumers don't know much about them, the plans simply cost too much, and the battery life isn't great. All of these are legitimate drawbacks. The carriers have talked a lot about wireless plans that would support multiple devices, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, which makes mobile hotspots (or smartphones that can act as one) the only practical solution for those who want to carry around several wireless devices.

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