- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

If it works as well in “real life” as it did last week at a lunch meeting on Pennsylvania Avenue, Novatel Wireless’ “MiFi” could be quite something.

The device, which may retail for around $200, or less with a carrier’s subsidy, is a little shorter than an Apple iPhone and somewhat thinner. It combines mobile data communications with a tiny Wi-Fi “router” that’ll share its signal with neighboring devices over 802.11b and 802.11g connections, tech speak for speeds up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps). The mobile data can be either CDMA- or GSM-based or, more simply, run on either Sprint’s, Verizon’s or AT&T’s networks.

None of these firms - which have U.S.-based relationships with San Diego-based Novatel - has confirmed plans to offer the MiFi device, said Rob Hadley, a senior technical adviser to the firm, who previously was Novatel’s senior vice president for worldwide sales and marketing. T-Mobile, according to Mr. Hadley, works with Novatel Wireless products in Europe, but apparently not here.

The briefing, therefore, was very much like the “concept car” demos popular at the annual auto shows in Detroit and elsewhere, although Mr. Hadley predicts MiFi will be available “within the first half of 2009” and probably closer to the first three months of the year. Unlike the concept cars, I was able to step in and take a “test drive,” as it were.

I did that using the iPhone and it’s Wi-Fi connectivity. A quick switch to that feature and the “name” of Mr. Hadley’s MiFi unit popped up; connection was instantaneous, and I was able to surf the Web and download e-mail with ease. If I had a Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, or VOIP, phone that used Wi-Fi, I could have made calls using that device, too. Equip a digital camera with a Eye-Fi Wireless SD card, and I could use the MiFi to send pictures from the camera to the Flickr online service, or to The Washington Times’ newsroom, if I desired. There’s a lot of possible uses for the product and the service it provides.

Moreover, Mr. Hadley said, the device is programmable: You (or a corporate IT department) could create various small applications for the MiFi that would have it grab e-mail overnight, and then download the items to your computer in the morning.

Other applications could help those without computers receive printouts of e-mail using a Wi-Fi compatible printer.

Final pricing isn’t nailed down, and wireless data tariffs haven’t been confirmed.

Right now, Mr. Hadley speculated that the MiFi would merit a data fee of around $60 per month for as much as 5 gigabytes of data transfer, the same as many other wireless plans.

The market, however, could push for change in this regard: While most of us are happy to pay “X” dollars per month for high-speed Internet at home, and another “Y” amount for smartphones that offer texting and Web browsing, adding “Z” dollars for the MiFi might be a bit much, especially at $720 or so for service each year, unless there’s a compelling (Read: business or tax-deductible) reason.

Thus, there’s some speculation that perhaps carriers will cut fees or bundle the MiFi with other services.

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