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Mi-Fi and Android smartphone mobile hotspot comparison

Wireless expert Lisa Phifer responds to a question regarding a Mi-Fi and Android smartphone mobile hotspot comparison. She provides an in depth analysis of both mobile hotspots, and also examples for uses of both.

What are the differences in a Mi-Fi and an Android smartphone mobile hotspot comparison?

As a commercially-successful personal mobile hotspot, the Novatel Mi-Fi has become synonymous with this approach – kind of like Kleenex vs. facial tissue. However, the Mi-Fi is just one example of a 3G/Wi-Fi pocket router – some others include the CradlePoint ClearSpot and the Sierra Wireless Overdrive. All of these products are portable routers, dedicated to letting a handful of Wi-Fi devices share the router's 3G (or 4G) mobile broadband Internet service. Some 3G/4G carriers sell these routers with pay-as-you-go plans, while others require a monthly fee and perhaps an annual contract.

Recently, many smartphones have started to offer personal mobile hotspot features. In some cases, the personal mobile hotspot is available at no extra cost (PalmPre), while in other cases, carriers charge an extra $10/month or more to enable this feature. Although details vary under the covers, these personal mobile hotspot features are supported by software – a "softAP" application that turns the smartphone's Wi-Fi chipset into a wireless router.

Like the Mi-Fi, that software AP/router lets a handful of other Wi-Fi devices share the smartphone's 3G (or 4G) mobile broadband Internet service. But unlike the Mi-Fi, that software AP/router is not dedicated to this task and is not permanently enabled. The phone's user must turn the hotspot feature on whenever sharing is desired. During that time, the phone itself cannot behave as a Wi-Fi client – for example, to access your home or business WLAN. On some phones, taking a voice call disrupts 3G/4G data flow, suspending personal mobile hotspot service for other Wi-Fi devices using it at that time.

Bottom line: These are just two different approaches to creating a personal mobile hotspot that you can carry with you to connect other Wi-Fi clients (like iPads and netbooks) that don't have their own 3G/4G Internet. One is a little dedicated piece of hardware, while the other is a run-as-needed software app.


About the Expert: Lisa Phifer owns and is president of Core Competence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in leading-edge network technology. She has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of networking and security products for over 25 years. She has advised companies large and small regarding needs, product assessment and the use of emerging technologies and best practices. Before joining Core Competence, Phifer was a member of the technical staff at Bell Communications Research, where she won a president's award for her work on ATM network management. Phifer teaches about wireless LANs, mobile security, NAC, and VPNs at many industry conferences and webinars. She has written extensively about network infrastructure and security technologies for numerous publications, including SearchSecurity.com, Information Security, Wi-Fi Planet, ISP-Planet, Business Communications Review, and Network World. Phifer's monthly wireless tips are published by SearchNetworking.com and SearchMobileComputing.com.

This was last published in March 2011

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