The availability of a mobile WiFi system — a portable device that establishes an internet WiFi port virtually anywhere — isn't hot news. But being able to turn your personal cell phone into a WiFi hot spot — and do it legally? That is news.
Most of us think of "WiFi" as that free service you can use to get your computer on the internet if you're in a Starbucks, a hotel or if a home is set up for wireless. You have to be near it to use it.
Verizon Wireless'ê new Droid X smartphone, built on the Android operating system, can give you Internet access virtually anywhere your cell phone works for up to 5 WiFi'êenabled devices at one time. That means, for example, if you're at a park, the beach, or driving to Aunt Minny's house (even at her house if it has no computer service), your laptop, your partner's laptop, and the three kids with Nintendo DS Gameboys can get on the internet using your cell phone as the WiFi source.
(We do not recommend using your laptop in your car while driving! But you get the point.)
At this time, the hotspot is restricted to the Droid X phone, but there's no pure technological reason why it can't or won'êt be implemented on other phones.
I test-drove the WiFi hotspot service recently using a Droid X phone supplied by Verizon. It was simple to use. With the cell phone service activated, I accessed the "3G Mobile Hotspot" app on the phone, typed in a secure password, and I was on line. I used a Samsung PC netbook to run a free Internet speed test. The download speed was a healthy 1.24 megabytes per second — the equivalent of many home broadband systems. I opened websites and watched video from CNET.com, the consumer tech site. The picture flowed smoothly with no jerks or stalls.
Is it worth it? If you need or want a variety of WiFi-enabled gadgets accessing the Internet anytime, anywhere, and at the same time, then this is a good service. There are some things to be aware of, however:
- Verizon Wireless doesn't handle voice and data simultaneously. You might be surfing websites or listening to Internet radio, but when a cell phone call comes in, whatever gadgets are attached by WiFi simply stop, and can't be rebooted until the call ends.
- The service adds to what may be a hefty monthly bill for some. My current Verizon cell bill, for example, includes $80 for 1,400 talk minutes on a family plan and $30 for my unlimited email and Internet service. I'd be adding $20 more for the hot spot. Net cost: $130 a month, and taxes on top of that.
There are stand-alone gadgets that do the same thing. Novatel's MiFi, available through Sprint and Verizon, provides essentially the same service but at a much faster speed (Novatel claims 7.2 Mpbs download and 5.76 Mbps upload). It also gives your more online time: Verizon will sell you up to 5 gigabytes per month at $60. There are also less expensive MiFi plans but with less data available. But then you need to buy the MiFi unit separately (either $270 retail or $20 with a two year plan), and and shell out for an additional cell phone data service. Using the 3G Mobile Hotspot on an existing phone keeps your gadget count restricted to one device, and for relatively casual use, the service speed and amount of data seems reasonable.
Techies know that making cell phones into hotspots has been available for years; however. Verizon has essentially blocked those software apps (Verizon has no ICS, or Internet Connection Sharing package). Then there is PDANet, an app available for all major phone operating systems — Apple, Android, Blackberry, Palm and Windows — that lets your cell phone be a modem for your laptop computer via their software and a USB cable connection. It'ês not illegal, but Verizon warns that 'êPDAnet and other similar apps — downloading and using them will break the terms and conditions of your agreement, and would also render the device warranty void.'ê Fair warning.