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Personal hotspots, iPads, and other toys

March 23, 2010

So I’ll confess that I pre-ordered an iPad. While I could write a whole post on techno-fetishism and the desire for the new-new, I thought I’d instead muse on something different: personal hotspots. A personal hotspot is a small device (typically about the size of a deck of cards or smaller) that acts, in essences, as a WiFi->cell network router for physically proximate devices.

Why have I been thinking about hotspots? Well, when I went to pre-order my iPad I had to decide whether to go for the WiFi only version or the WiFi+3G version. And in the end I went with the WiFi only version because:

  1. I abhor the notion of allowing AT&T to nickel and dime me for every single computing device I might want to use to access the Internet through a cell connection. Given that I’m unlikely to use my iPhone, iPad, and laptop all at the same time, why should I pay for their cell data connections separately?
  2. I’m not sure I’m likely to ever really use a 3G connection on an iPad given that I already have an iPhone I can use for data access while mobile if absolutely necessary.
  3. WiFi connections are increasingly pervasive. I could always pay for monthly access to Boingo‘s 100K+ hotspots if I decide I do want better Internet coverage while traveling.
  4. Personal hotspots like Verizon’s 3G MiFi and Sprint’s 3G/4G Overdrive are dropping in price and allow multiple devices to access the Internet via the cell network without needing 3G or 4G hardware; all they need is good ol’ fashioned WiFi.

The last is the item I find the most compelling. Want to access the cell network from a variety of devices (iPod Touch, iPad, netbook, laptop)? Skip the added expense of 3G hardware and cell data service for each and use a personal hotspot for all of them.

Want to use an iPhone but don’t want to get locked into AT&T? How about an iPod Touch + Verizon’s MiFi? Want to try out 4G data rates without buying new hardware for all of your devices? Get a Sprint Overdrive and use them all at 4G speeds.

Obviously personal hotspots aren’t perfect solutions; there’s still the small matter of incoming calls for mobile phones. But for devices that will be primarily used to pull information (iPads, netbooks, laptops), they seem like a better solution than integrated cell hardware and device-by-device service expenses. And for outgoing calls there’s always Skype or other VOIP services.

So my interest is purely speculative; I haven’t yet bought a hotspot and don’t plan to the immediate future. But I think they’re an increasingly compelling alternative for mobile Internet access that I may indeed utilize in the not-too-distant future.

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