Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.


In a commercial featuring 30 Rock actress and producer Tina Fey and director Martin Scorsese, the former Saturday Night Live head writer uses her credit card to gain entrance to an airline lounge. The notion of a faceless slice serving as an access pass would also apply to Novatel Wireless's MiFi, the simply named 3G personal hotspot that will support up to five users simultaneously connecting to a 3G network when it is offered through operators next year.

MiFi is not the first product to enable a small group to bridge WiFi products to the wireless WAN. One early entrant, Junxion, was acquired by Novatel Wireless competitor Sierra Wireless. And Cradlepoint has created a battery-powered device sold at Best Buy that, like the Junxion device, relies on a laptop card to create its WAN connection.

That's not true, though, of the MiFi, which integrates an HSPA or EVDO radio along with the battery that can provide over four hours of Internet access to devices such as a PC, iPod touch, Zune, Nintendo DS or Sony PSP. In fact, without apologies to Right Said Fred, the MiFi may be "too sexy for my LAN" -- particularly for a product that can work silently in a backpack as it serves its nodes. A thicker frame could provide all-day access, but perhaps such lengthy sessions will generally take place where there is access to an outlet; the device continues to perform normally if it is drawing juice from a PC's USB port. But the MiFi is not simply a dumb dispenser of digits.

It is not just noteworthy for its level of integration but also because it is actually a platform for which developers can write applications. One example might be automatically backing up photos from a digital camera and transmitting them to a remote server overnight. It can also accept removable media cards. And Novatel representatives indicate it might even be a candidate to run Android down the road.

The MiFi should be available for less than $300, potentially considerably less if operators subsidize it. It is aimed at enterprises, small businesses and consumers, where it could face competition from products such as the AutoNet Mobile in the vehicle. Other on-the-go options would include using phones themselves as routers using software such as TapRoot Systems' Walking HotSpot or JoikuSpot. Tethering plans tend to cost half of what US operators are charging for a full data plan and may be all many consumers need when they are outside a Wi-Fi hotspot.

However, a limited number of handsets support these applications, some operators seeing the hotspot-enabled handset as a double-edged sword, and Verizon Wireless, for example, takes a dim view of WiFi on any of its handsets (such as the Blackberry Storm, where WiFi is supported in the Vodafone version). Those who can foot the monthly bills for broadband wireless will be able to extend their bubble of connectivity with the MiFi. If enough do, it may even attract developers willing to cater to the device's intelligence, providing new capabilities to those connected cadres in the club. As has been said of Tina Fey's credit card, membership has its privileges.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.