Wi-Fi to Go: The Hot Spot in a Box

David Pogue

The New York Times February 23, 2006

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.

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 D.S.L. 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'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.

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