- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

A little more than five months ago, at the tail end of December, the folks from Novatel Wireless came by and demonstrated the MiFi 2200, a “personal” wireless hot spot, one that promises to put the speed of the Internet in a transceiver the size of a credit card, albeit with the thickness of several such cards.

The premise, as I wrote at the time, is an interesting one, promising consistent Internet access without worrying whether you have a Wi-Fi account at Starbucks or access at the public library.

Cordless, rechargeable and superportable, the MiFi — which Verizon Wireless is reportedly offering in a GSM-based version and which Sprint Nextel has for its CDMA network — is now seeing the light of day. I’ve finally had one to play with.

The device is advertised as offering connection speeds up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps), but the reality seems to be rather different. In two tests involving Speedtest.net, I found download speeds at 1.3 Mbps. Uploads were less consistent: 0.51 Mbps in one try, but less than half that, or 0.24 Mbps, the next. Granted, those are in a range “up to” 54 Mbps, but are so slow as to cause one’s head to shake in wonder.

These speeds likely will vary, of course, by location and the signal strength of the Sprint network in a given place. But sometimes, they just vary: When I first loaded some Web pages one afternoon, things dragged. Then, speeds picked up rather nicely: The Department of Defense home page, which I’d not loaded on this computer before, snapped to pixilated attention.

It’s a puzzlement, one that might make some users shy away from the new device. And, to be honest, this isn’t for the commitment-phobic. It’ll cost you $149.99 to buy the MiFi, relabeled the Sprint Mobile Hotspot, after which you can send in a coupon for a $50 rebate. The firm also requires a two-year service commitment, at either $60 per month for data-only service or $149.99 per month for what the firm calls a “Simply Everything Plan + Mobile Broadband,” offering unlimited talk time on a phone and the data. (I’d imagine you have to buy the phone separately.)

Either way, this isn’t bargain-basement wireless Internet, and, as I wrote before, it’s likely to appeal most to those who have a business reason to write this off on their taxes. However, the question of the moment is whether the MiFi would draw raucous laughter or longing admiration from an IRS auditor based on its performance and ease of use.

In terms of speed, as noted above, the performance can vary. Battery life, on this rechargeable device, is rather impressive, however. At this writing, I’ve had it up and running for about three hours without a problem; it’s rated to provide four hours of active use, and 40 hours of standby time. That would likely appeal to riders on intercity trains and buses without Wi-Fi, for example.

And you can’t beat its tiny size: The thing is truly pocketable, or could be kept in a purse or briefcase without much problem. If turned on, you’d be ready to roll with a minimum of fuss.

Sprint also advertises that the MiFi 2200 can be shared by as many as five users, making the monthly service cost a bit more manageable in many situations. It offers 64-bit WEP security, which means you can set a password to protect “your” network. The Sprint version of the MiFi is also equipped with a GPS feature, although, frankly, I’m not sure how I’d use that beyond the “novelty” of being able to find gas stations or restaurants near my current location. But, then, I can also do that with an iPhone, at least the restaurant part.

So that leaves us where we started, I guess: The MiFi 2200 is interesting, but it requires a commitment to Sprint’s network, in whole or in part. Only you can determine whether that commitment is worth it.

• E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.