Mobile Wifi

Mobile wifi has been around for a while, but has its time now come?

WiFi LogoDo you remember the days before laptops had in-built wifi adaptors? It used to be quite common to buy a mobile data plan, with its own SIM, that worked by connecting a “dongle” (containing the SIM card) into a USB port of a laptop. I seem to remember that this used to work reasonably well. Somewhere along the way, though, these seem to have lost favour. When I asked my mobile provider (EE) about it recently, they said that they no longer support such devices.

In large part, they probably went out of popular use as laptops began to be supplied with their own wifi adaptor. These could easily be connected to one’s own wifi router or to the wifi supplied in ever-increasing numbers of public locations. However, I have now found that some mobile providers do still offer “data dongles”. See the one illustrated from Vodafone.

EE Osprey Mobile WiFi
EE Osprey Mobile WiFi
So why do I mention this now? Well, when iPads first came out, I advised buying a version that included the ability to take a SIM card for a dedicated mobile data plan. This would give the same facility as plugging in a USB dongle with a SIM card (which can’t, of course, be done with an iPad as there’s no USB connectivity). My reasoning was that it is probably worth the ridculous £100 extra on the price of the iPad just to be able to connect to the internet wherever there is a 3G (or, now, 4G) signal. That’s what I bought for myself and it worked well. Move on a while, and I now have a Microsoft Surface that I carry with me for work. It is essential that I am self-sufficient with a wifi connection, so I asked EE if I could buy a USB dongle so as to put the SIM from my iPad into my Surface (the Surface can’t directly take a SIM).

EE said they don’t support the dongles any more but I could buy a “mobile wifi”. This takes a mobile data SIM and trasnsmits a wifi signal that can be connected to by up to 10 devices in the area. This is great because there are no physical connections (so it’s not taking up the only USB slot on a Microsoft Surface, for example) and it means that ANY device or computer that can connect to a wifi signal can access it without any software or setting up (other than knowing the name (SSID) of the mobile wifi and its password). I know that these devices have been around for quite a while but they’ve never been anything like widespread.

Vodafone Data Dongle
Vodafone Data Dongle
So I bought one and I’m well pleased with it. I’ve been getting speeds of up to 15mbit/sec on mine. This is twice as fast as at least half of the standard domestic ADSL broadband connections that I see among my computer support clients. The connection is usually stable and it produces a good enough signal that I don’t even take it out of my bag: I just turn it on and connect to it wirelessly in the normal way.

It also means that I’m not having to choose between my iPad and Surface for internet connectivity. In fact, up to 10 devices can typically connect to one mobile wifi at a time. I just need to make sure I’ve got the mobile wifi with me and that it’s charged. It is charged via a standard micro USB connection in about an hour or so.

There’s another use I put it to, and that is that I now routinely connect to the internet in cafes and other public places via my mobile wifi and not via the “free” wifi provided in those establishments. And there are two very good reasons why I think it’s a good idea to get away from unsecured public wifi connections:

  • With public wifi. you can’t be sure that the innocent-looking person on the next table to you isn’t stealing every bit and byte that’s passing between you and the internet.
  • With public wifi, you can’t be certain that the provider isn’t stealing information about you as well. A few weeks ago I connected to Costa Coffee’s wifi for some reason and was really hacked off when a message came up saying their terms and conditions have changed and that I now have to tell them my gender! No way. If they are giving me free wifi then it’s not free if they are gathering (and selling?) information about me and my use of their service. Having a distinctly childish and petulant streak in me, I told them I am female.

So, if you have several mobile devices and want more-or-less permanent access to a secure wifi connection, then mobile wifi is versatile in that it allows any device capable of a wifi connection to connect to it, and it also lets you get away from the security-challenged environment of public wifi.

But, oh yes, it’s one more thing to forget to put in your bag when you go out, and one more thing to forget to charge.