Wi-Fi to go: The hot spot in a box

You know what would be so cool? A portable Wi-Fi hot spot. Actually, such a thing exists.

You know what would be so cool? A portable Wi-Fi hot spot. Whenever you wanted Internet access, you wouldn't have to hunt for a wireless coffee shop or pay $24 a night to your hotel.

Instead, you'd travel with a little box. Plug it into a power outlet--or even your car's cigarette lighter--and boom, you and everyone within 200 feet could get onto the Internet at high speed, without wires.

Actually, such boxes exist. They come from companies like Kyocera, Junxion and Top Global, and they're every bit as awesome as they sound. (Unfortunately, the category is so new that it has no agreed-upon name. "Portable hot spot" is descriptive but unwieldy. "Cellular gateway" is a bit cryptic. Kyocera's term, "mobile router," may be as good as any.)

Before you start thinking that you've died and gone to Internet heaven, however, you should know that these boxes don't work alone. Each requires the insertion of a PC laptop card provided by a cellular carrier like Verizon, Sprint or Cingular. The card provides the Internet connection, courtesy of those companies' 3G (third generation) high-speed cellular data networks. The box just rebroadcasts that connection as a Wi-Fi signal so that all nearby computers--not just one privileged laptop--can go online.

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With those PC cards, you can go online anywhere there's a cellular signal: in a taxi, on a bus, in a waiting room or wherever. In major cities, the speed is delightful, like a DSL or slowish cable modem (400 to 700 kilobits a second). In other areas, you can still go online, but only slightly faster than with a dial-up modem. (Also note that uploading is far slower than downloading.)

All right, go ahead, ask it: If you can already outfit your laptop with one of these miraculous cards, why do you need a mobile router that translates the cellular connection into a Wi-Fi one?

First, not all computers have the necessary card slot. (Apple Computer's iBooks and new MacBook Pro laptops come to mind.) Second, a mobile router can accommodate machines with no wireless features at all--like desktop computers--thanks to standard Ethernet network jacks on the back. (The Kyocera has four, the Junxion two and the Top Global one.)

Above all, Wi-Fi lets lots of computers share the same Internet signal. Cellular PC-card service is very expensive: $60 a month for unlimited use ($80 if you don't also have a voice plan). That's a lot to pay for a single computer to go online. A mobile router opens up that signal to any computer within about 200 feet; $60 a month is a lot more palatable when 10 or 20 of you are sharing it.

Mobile routers have become essential equipment for traveling groups. Bus and train companies are experimenting with these boxes to see if having high-speed Wi-Fi onboard appeals to passengers. These boxes are also becoming standard amenities for the casts of TV shows and movies and for rock bands, so that they can check e-mail or surf the Web between takes or whenever they're on location or on the tour bus.

But a mobile router might make sense even in stationary environments. Small businesses can use one as a backup connection when the power goes out. (A mobile router can draw its power from a car or battery pack.)

Other people are canceling their home DSL or cable modem service altogether. Instead of paying twice for Internet access--for a cable modem and a cellular laptop plan--they use the cellular card at home and on the road and save a lot of money.

To use a mobile router, you insert your cellular laptop card (which must first be activated in a Windows laptop). Then you connect the router to your computer using an Ethernet cable (included). You type the box's numeric address into your Web browser, and presto: You're viewing its configuration page. Here's where you indicate which brand of PC card you have (Novatel, Sierra Wireless or whatever), turn on password protection, and fiddle with pages and pages of network and security settings, if you're into that sort of thing.

The Junxion box is a biggish slab of folded sheet metal, unimpressive except for its bright green paint job, measuring 6.3 by 10.3 by 1.1 inches and costing $600. As you can tell from the price, Junxion seeks corporate buyers, not individuals. Yet only a few of its features cry out "corporate." (One of them lets a network geek configure a fleet of Junxion boxes by remote control, from the comfort of company headquarters.)

For $600, you might expect more than two measly status lights, and geeks might expect the wireless signal to be 802.11g instead of the older "b" variant. On the other hand, the Junxion has some neat features, including the ability to greet colleagues with a splash screen. ("Welcome to Dave's free Wi-Fi highway! Click Connect to continue, and don't forget to thank Dave by dropping off cash or baked goods at his cubicle.")

The new Kyocera KR1, developed jointly with D-Link, is more attractive for a couple of important reasons. First, it costs only a third as much ($200 after rebate). It's also much smaller and better-looking (8.5 by 5.3 by 1.3 inches) and feels more like a finished commercial product.

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