Switched On: I, hotspot

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

One of the conundrums facing device makers today is how to add wireless connectivity to their products. E-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook use internet access primarily for selling you more content, so it can be completely subsidized. Laptops, on the other hand, can consume large amounts of data, and so plans can run $60 per month and have capped bandwidth, even at that price. Apple and AT&T's iPad pricing scheme attempts a compromise: a $15 prepaid for a minimal 250 MB per month that could serve the needs of many users (especially with a Flash-less browser and sideloaded video delivery), along with the option of a $30 unlimited plan.

For many users, though, there is another option: bring your own broadband. Last year, Novatel Wireless's MiFi, launched in the U.S. by Sprint and Verizon Wireless, opened up the possibility for virtually any WiFi device to access the internet over 3G connections. Laptops without 3G cards could access the web from a car and the iPod touch became a functional iPhone -- and in some parts of AT&T's alleged network coverage, more functional than an iPhone.

Recently Sprint followed up the introduction of it MiFi with the Overdrive from Sierra Wireless. The Overdrive is significantly chunkier than the MiFi, but brings several advantages. First among these is access to 4G WiMAX networks in the expanding canvas of cities where it is available. Others include an advanced web-based device management site that lets you tweak all kinds of parameters, the ability to act as a GPS receiver, a microSD slot for sharing content with a workgroup, and an LCD that can display status indicators, and the network name and password -- a much higher-tech approach to the simple sicker on the MiFi. There's even a speaker to alert you to connections and when the battery is running low.

And then, of course, there is the hotspot that may already be in your hands -- "tethering" with your mobile phone. U.S. carriers have had an inconsistent record in supporting this functionality, but Verizon Wireless is now supporting it on the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, and AT&T offers it for the BlackBerry (and has promised, but not delivered, tethering for the iPhone).

Other personal hotspots have been announced that don't provide mobile broadband on the go, but can offer other services. One is Tivit, a portable receiver for the new over-the-air mobile digital television broadcasts that will be rolling out in the U.S. later in 2010. With Tivit, device makers don't need to build a DTV receiver and antenna into their products, although they will need some client software to receive the rebroadcasts over WiFi. And then there's AirStash, a small USB drive that accepts SD cards and can serve up that content on demand. It can be used to extend the storage of your own WiFi phone or to conveniently pass along some photos or a presentation to others on the go.

While WiFi isn't fast enough to substitute completely for a device's native functions, it can enable just about any device that has a web browser to tap into an array of content and services. And Novatel Wireless intends to turn its mobile hotspots into platforms for which developers can write programs, making it harder to limit device capabilities through native development restrictions. Imagine a MiFi that contained a browser like like Skyfire for Windows Mobile and Symbian, which can render Flash video -- you could theoretically play it back on a device that doesn't support the plug-in. And, of course, the capability will travel with you to whatever group accompanies you. Increasingly, as you go out to dinner with friends, you may find that your waiter is far from your only server.

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