In an effort to establish professionalism, I do try to not pimp my employer’s products or services. I’m an unabashed user of a product on a competitor’s network (iPhone) and try to make it clear that the content here represents my own opinions and not those of my employer. So I hope that you will maintain a level of respect for me and give me some objectivity points when I say that I have a new love: my Verizon Wireless MiFi. It’s a pocket-sized wifi hotspot for up to 5 devices that connects to the Verizon Wireless EV-DO 3G wireless broadband network. The device is manufactured by Novatel Wireless and is also sold by Sprint.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time you have no doubt concluded that I am a gadget hound and tech nerd. Would it surprise you to learn that when I travel for business I usually travel with two laptops? It’s a sickness, I know. I’m a firm believer in keeping my work work on my work PC (an HP) and my personal material and projects on my MacBook Pro. In most hotels this has resulted in a life-or-death decision of which computer will be registered for the (usually expensive and slow) hotel broadband connection. In a few instances in the past I was able to use my Apple Airport Express to connect multiple devices to the hotel broadband. In those instances the connection is generally very slow, and often I find myself unable to use my VPN to connect to my work e-mail and other intranet resources. Bummer.
Even when I bite the bullet and decide that my work PC will be the sole digital link to the outside world performance is inconsistent. In my years of travel I have found it amazing how many times my VPN did not work. It still also amazes me how many hotels still treat broadband as an optional amenity. It’s not– a hotel room might as well not have electricity or running water. The net is central to how I and many others live our lives today and is non-negotiable if I am going to remain a productive employee while on the road. It also still amazed me the rates hotels charge for Internet connectivity: $12.95/day seems to be the standard. You don’t learn the VPN won’t function until after you’ve connected the work laptop and tried to connect. Want to cut bait and just use the personal machine? That’s another $12.50, please. Don’t even THINK of connecting your iPhone or other wifi-enabled smart phone (you can generally fall back on your usable if somewhat slow 3G connection there). Coffee shops and other hotspots also have spotty, inconsistent support for VPN connectivity. A lot of productivity has been lost struggling to get a VPN connection only to give up and just resign myself to days of catching up on e-mail and other tasks when next I am at home or in the office. To put it mildly, connectivity when traveling sucks.
I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Since I bought my MiFi I’ve had one day of meetings outside of the office and one business trip. On my day running around the Washington metro area I was able to use my down time to great productive effect The VPN works flawlessly every time. I can connect my PC, Macintosh and iPhone all to a blazing fast (in wireless terms) network with great coverage. On my recent business trip I did a speed check to find that I was getting 1097 Kbps down and 652 Kbps up. While it’s not as fast as my FiOS connection at home (I will limit myself to pimping one Verizon product in this post) it’s faster than most hotel broadband connections.
I’m not the only one who loves this devices and have made productive use of the MiFi. Andy Abramson of VoIP Watch and Bob Gourley of CTOVision have both sung the praises of their MiFis. Guy Kawasaki made a great post to the American Express OPEN for Small Business blog highlighting some valuable use cases for his Sprint MiFi, and some relevant to people who are not afflicted with my tech nerdery:
- In your hotel room
- Traveling with kids
- MacBook Air, iPhone and iPod Touch owners
- Smartphone users using VoIP such as Skype
- Making a sales pitch when you need a reliable and fast Internet connection
- Conference attendance (often wifi at a conference is either completely unavailable or an additional daily expense. Now you can even use the MiFi”s support for multiple connections to make friends and influence people).
- Speaking or presenting when you need an Internet connection (a requirement I can say with experience many venues are challenged to provide reliably)
- Alternative to tethering your computer with a mobile phone
One challenge I have had with the MiFi is maintaining a charge on the device. On my recent business trip I learned that my MiFi as well as a few other devices that charge via USB do not like my Belkin travel surge suppressor. This is a handy three-outlet surge suppressor that also has two USB ports to charge devices without the need for additional power adapters. This I think is a problem more of the Belkin than the MiFi, because my iPhone also would not take a charge from this device. So the one cautionary advice I would offer is that travelers should take the MiFi’s power adapter on the road with them just to be safe. The MiFi can be charged via USB from your computer, and I found this to be somewhat idiosyncratic and felt that the MiFI didn’t get the full charge it does when plugged in directly to an outlet.
Overall this is a device I strongly recommend. The retail price is competitive with standard 3G adapters for laptops (that only support connectivity for that single device). You barely have to travel more than once a month to make the $60 monthly price (5 Gigabytes cap) more cost-effective than paying for daily connectivity at hotels, in airports or coffee shops. The MiFi has already paid for itself this month and kept me happier and more productive in the bargain.