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Tech Report – On-the-go with a personal Wi-Fi hotspot

By Michael Connolly

Technology commentators often refer to the always-connected, Internet-driven world we live in. And it's true – smartphones and 3G networks mean that we have the ability to check e-mail, play games, and even update our Facebook accounts virtually anywhere we choose to go.

But what if we want to do more than get the latest stock quotes or follow a baseball game? What if we are out and about and have a little time to do some serious work? We open up a laptop or netbook and…nothing! We get the dreaded "no wireless networks are in range" message or a bunch of password-protected networks that we can't access.

Of course, there's always Starbucks, if you can find one. But by the time you've bought coffee, logged on, thought up yet another new password and fumbled with your credit card, it's time to move on.

Even worse, you're waiting for a flight and shell-out the $6 to log-on via one of those slightly suspect airport providers. You then spend the next two hours going crazy, as you're repeatedly kicked-off the hopelessly overloaded and outdated network.

But thankfully, help is on the way. We are entering yet another phase of the never-ending tech revolution – the emergence of the personal Wi-Fi hotspot.

The ability to keep our laptop connected has been with us for a while. All the major carriers provide some kind of web connection device like a USB stick, but they require a data plan that can cost anything up to $60 per month.

Last year, Verizon and other carriers edged closer to providing a true personal hotspot by introducing the MiFi, a small battery-powered Wi-Fi router with a built-in cellular modem. You can turn it on anywhere your carrier has a signal and you're broadcasting your own personal Wi-Fi. Usually, the device will support up to five PCs or other network-enabled devices, which is great for families as well as small meetings.

Again, the drawback is price. You will have to pay up to $100 for the device and $60 per month under a two-year data plan.

As has often been the case in the past – think satellite radio or GPS navigation devices – the big breakthrough in this new technology may come courtesy of the auto industry. At the end of last year, Ford announced that the next-generation of its SYNC-equipped vehicles will come with their own travelling Wi-Fi hotspots, allowing everyone within the car to connect seamlessly as they motor down the road.

Whether it's a credit card-sized device that we carry in our pocket or a USB stick hanging from a key chain, our own personal Wi-Fi bubble is coming soon. I've got a feeling it's something we will get used to in a hurry!

Comment by Milcah, posted 2/17/2010, 11:07 AM:

Prices and contracts have always been what's kept me back. This should be interesting. Thanks for sharing.
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