Today Noel McKeegan and I had a chance to sit down with Jon Driscoll, Novatel Wireless' VP of Global Product Managment, and talk about their upcoming line of MiFi Hotspots.
Historically, if you needed to use your PC away from your home or office, you'd need to find a coffee shop or other business that provided public WiFi access, then sit down, sign up, and log in to a paid WiFi network.
This was followed by data only PC Cards and USB devices that plugged into your laptop as a modem and used your PC to communicate via TCP to the internet (almost like an old style dial-up connection, but at higher speed). This has the benefit of not having to pay the coffee shop for internet access, and actually let you avoid the coffee shop completely and connect wherever you can receive a mobile phone signal.
While 3G data modems are still a popular method of connecting from the field, they don't allow you to easily share your connection with multiple people. This need for sharing was solved by companies that build wireless routers with USB ports that could be used to create a local personal WiFi hotspots using your 3G modem as a link back to the internet.
Enter 2009 and Novatel has built an innovative product that combines a wireless access point, an internet router, and a 3G modem card into a package that's the size of a business card, half the thickness of your Blackberry and weights less than 80g. Additionally, their first MiFi device (based upon CDMA technology) is estimated to operate for up to 4 hours of active use with 40 hours of standby time (if nobody is connecting through your device). Connected it to a power outlet (or USB port on a PC), it can run indefinitely, while simultaneously charging it's internal battery.
Novatel is planning on following up the CDMA/1xEvDO version with two GSM/HSPA versions aimed at the US and the rest of the world. These GSM versions will be slight larger and include a micro-HCSD slot for data storage and future feature expansion.
After seeing the device in action, we were quite impressed. The default configuration allows for up to 5 users to simultaneously use a single 3G connection, and browsing speed was exactly the same as thought our PC was connected directly via a 3G modem. It's important to note that since the MiFi device only interacts with your PC as a WiFi Access Point, there are no drivers to load. Custom drivers for 3G modem cards are a common source of system instability, blue screens, and crashes.
We're sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to get hold of an actual production unit to test. Novatel expects that these device (along with shiny new data plans) will be available from wireless carriers in the US and Europe in the first half of 2009. The rest of the world, will just have to wait.
Stay tuned for our video interview with Jon Driscoll.