Monday, October 18, 2010

MiFi Points The Way to Wireless Transition

Verizon Wireless just made an amazing announcement. They will be selling the Apple iPad in their stores. But aren’t Apple and AT&T exclusive partners? Indeed. So, why is Verizon selling a product that won’t work on their network? ...Or will it?

Verizon MiFi. Click to find service.Yes, it will. How Verizon accomplished this clever feat of engineering points the way to the future of wireless broadband. Actually, not the future future. Just the immediate future. Call it the era of wireless transition.

Wireless technology has pretty much developed along two lines. One is the telecom carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. There are other players in the cellular wireless game, but they are simply private branded versions of the big four within the US. What characterizes the major carriers is that their offerings are proprietary. What works on AT&T won’t work on Verizon Wireless, and vice versa.

The other wireless path is an industry standard known a WiFi. It comes in flavors such as a, b, g, and n. But unlike telecom carrier services there is enough commonality and backwards compatibility that pretty much any WiFi device will work on pretty much any wireless router, hotspot or access point.

What Verizon has cleverly done is marry the two lines. They can’t get into the iPad through the front door, so the come in the back door. How? Very simple. They use an interface device to convert cellular to WiFi. That device is the MiFi. The Verizon MiFi is a little box about the size of a pack of cards. Inside is a cellular radio, a WiFi radio, a battery and some circuitry to make it all work. All you do is push a button to turn it on and the converter works automatically. It allows up to 5 wireless devices to gain access to the Verizon 3G wireless network as if they were Verizon-enabled to begin with.

The Verizon iPad will consist of an Apple iPad and a Verizon MiFi bundled together. They are separate pieces of equipment, but the MiFi will slip into your pocket or bag so it isn’t intrusive. At first blush, it may seem like having to carry around two pieces of equipment instead of just one is a big disadvantage for Verizon compared to AT&T. But Verizon may get the last laugh after all. The MiFi provides 3G connectivity for your iPad, but it also provides 3G connectivity for your other devices that don’t have their own 3G service built-in. That includes your laptop computer, netbook, games, and even your Apple iPod. If you had to buy separate 3G service for each device, you’d go broke. But one MiFi can serve whatever gadgets need connectivity, as long as they are WiFi enabled.

Verizon isn’t the only one with a MiFi. Novatel, maker of the MiFi, offers an unlocked version for GSM carriers AT&T and T-Mobile. There’s a MiFi specifically for Virgin Mobile. Sprint goes one further with their Sierra Wireless Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot. It works on both the Sprint 3G Mobile Broadband network and its 4G WiMAX network. CLEAR offers a similar 3G/4G converter called Clear Spot.

Even these converters are transitional technology. Smartphones, starting with the Droid X by Motorola and Samsung Epic, have the cellular to WiFi hotspot capability built-in. This is likely to become a standard feature on smartphone designs, as WiFi and Bluetooth are the industry standard wireless technologies. WiFi has the greater transmission range.

Down the road a few years, the tide of wireless seems to be going in the direction of standardizing on LTE as a 4G standard. Cellular phone may give way to VoIP over LTE. At that point it will be hard to tell the difference between a mobile phone, a smartphone and a digital device like a tablet computer. Perhaps a single smart radio chip will provide universal wireless connectivity. Just pick your carrier and sign up for a service plan after you buy the device. The wireless transition era will be complete.

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