Losing your mobile phone signal or your Internet connection is
like having the plug pulled on life
support. Happily, boffins have come up with a couple of ways to keep you connected by merging broadband and the mobile network, even when it goes against physics, logic and nature.
But what the heck are all these little black boxes -- known
variously as mobile hotspots, mobile Wi-Fi, MiFi, access gateways and
femtocells -- and how do they get us online? All will be revealed.
Two sides of the
There are two techno-plans for combining broadband and the mobile network to keep us connected everywhere.
First, you can hook your laptop up to the Internet where there's no broadband by using the
3G network that was intended for mobile phones. This is the tweak that gets you broadband
on the train, and there's a whole heap of options to get connected.
Second, you can receive calls where there's no phone coverage
by routing them over a broadband Internet connection. This solution turns your
mobile into a not-so-mobile, since you've got to stay close to your own personal
phone mast, but at least it's got a cool name: femtocell.
Mobile phone signals aren't that
great indoors, between high buildings or in valleys. It's a wonder they
work at all without phone masts being installed in our faces. The networks can't wrangle that, but they can sell a signal
booster, which in geekspeak is called a femtocell.
Where it got this groovy name is a mystery to us, because
it's not so teeny tiny that you need to measure it in protons. It's about the
size of a modem, and it plugs into your home Internet connection and puts out a
Vodafone is the first network to offer the box in Europe, calling
it the Vodafone
Access Gateway. You can connect to that signal using your normal mobile, as long as it supports 3G and it has a Vodafone SIM in it.
Vodafone's box supports up to four simultaneous calls, so your family doesn't
have to take turns. You'll also have to register the mobile numbers that are
allowed to connect, to prevent cheeky neighbours from piggybacking your signal.
And of course, you need an Internet connection to hook up to, and you pay for
and maintain that yourself.
You can rent an Access Gateway from £5 per month,
or make a one-off purchase for £160. It's also available as part of a phone
contract, starting at £15 per month.
It's something of a kick in the satchel to pay three times to use
your mobile -- once for a normal contract, once for the femtocell contract,
and again for broadband. But trust us -- nothing's worse than having no phone coverage
in your evil lair deep underground, so it might be worth the extra spend.Of course, you could just use a landline, but
where's the fun in that?
The flipside is when you've got a good 3G mobile signal but there's no
broadband to be had. You could just check your email and do some browsing on
your phone, but for documents
cloud, for example, you need to use your laptop.
You could surf over the mobile network by using a 3G dongle,
which is definitely the cheapest option. You could also try tethering --
connecting your phones to your laptop -- but that's only possible on some
phones, and it usually involves a USB cable connection. Either way, you can
only connect one laptop at a time -- for multiple computers and wireless-enabled
devices such as cameras, you
need a proper Wi-Fi signal.
For this, you need a mobile hotspot, which connects to the
3G network and spits out Wi-Fi. The Novatel MiFi is such a box, and it's only
about the size of a deck of cards.
Just pop a SIM card inside and fire it up to create your own
Wi-Fi mini-cloud for up to five devices within 10m. The 3 network is planning
to sell the MiFi with a 3 SIM card this winter, although it's
not spilling the beans on prices yet. You can also pick up the MiFi for £210
from distributers such as eXpansys and pop in your own SIM
from any network.
We haven't seen 3's version of the MiFi, but the one we
tested offered four hours of battery life, HSDPA for speedy surfing, optional WPA
security, and a microSD card slot so you can share files over Wi-Fi. It supported
up to five devices, which have to stay within about 10m of the box.
Beware of going over your data allowance or going nuts
with downloads -- even if you have an unlimited data package. Although the MiFi
will take any SIM card, and there's no way for your network operator to know
you're using it, every network has a fair-use policy, and if you're using huge
amounts you could receive a stern call from customer services telling you to
lay off or face a massive bill.