Your Own Internet Bubble

I wasn’t making any noise about it for fear of some d-bag breaking into my house, but I just spent the last week in Florida. I took the wife and spawn to the sunny Gulf shores near St. Petersberg, and we had a lovely time.

When a Canadian such as myself travels to the US, it’s usually with a great deal of trepidation. Not for the horrors of flying (though they are manifold), nor the slight discomfort of being somewhere similar-but-different. My constant worry is not being connected to the Internet. Because once you live with the joys of always-on wireless networking, doing without it is physically painful. And when you leave Canada, you are most certainly doing without it.

But not this time. Rather than settle for the occasional scrap of WiFi at a hotel or airport lounge, I sprung for a Novatel MiFi, a device that acts as a mobile broadband wireless router. It is a slender unit, about the same footprint as a credit card, though a fair bit thicker. It contains a Sprint SIM card, and pumps 3G data to any computing device within its range.

I rented this unit from Event Radio Rentals, based out of New York City. They shipped it via FedEx to my hotel, and I returned it on my departure. The total cost for the four days I had it came to about $60.

The concept was very attractive: wherever I traveled during my time in Florida, I projected a field of sweet, sweet Internet. My wife, despite rolling eyes at my Internet dependence, enjoyed having email anytime with her iPhone, and I sure as hell did as well.

On paper, the MiFi appears to be the perfect answer to a surprising new problem: we have all these devices, but how do we give them all access to the Internet?

This question has been thrown in sharp relief, thanks to the introduction of Apple’s iPad. Here we have what for many of us early adopters will be a second device that we can take anywhere, on which we’ll want access to everything.

But wait. They expect us to buy yet another data plan for it?

Yes. Yes they do. Perhaps in some acknowledgement of the quandary we face, Apple worked with AT&T to provide a “killer deal” for 3G data access; not only offering significantly lower pricing, but (more importantly) loosening the terms of the deal, such that you can pay a month at a time (whether such a deal will extend to Canada remains to be seen, though we expect it will). Still, I find the notion of buying network access on a per-device basis a really bad long-term proposition. Will we be buying data plans for our laptops, smart phones, tablets, cameras and watches? They’ll all benefit from always-on access someday.

Technically, we should be using our existing iPhone data plans to tether any other device to the network. But Apple apparently won’t be allowing that for the iPad, pointing the way to a future where every piece of hardware will be its own island on the network.

To me, the future is obvious: one person, one data plan, multiple devices. The fact that it’s not obvious to anyone else is shocking to me.

But there is this MiFi: a legitimate way to create an Internet bubble that encompasses all your little islands. So, the thinking goes, you could ditch your iPhone data plan and just get one of these. But my experience with the MiFi, while generally positive, speaks to the limitations of this approach.

Primarily, the MiFi makes a number of sacrifices to save power: stop using the network for any length of time, and the device powers down. When you want to use the network again, you’ll need to push the power button on the MiFi to wake it up. And then wait while the 3G signal is re-acquired, for the 802.11 network to begin broadcasting, and for your Mac or iPhone to grab that signal and assign an IP address.

Most of us, especially during the day while on the road, are network grazers: we pick and poke on Twitter or email, throw a couple of queries at Google, but generally we have the phone in our pocket. Five minutes later the MiFi gets sleepy, and shuts down. So next time someone asks how to get to the restaurant, there’s a good two- to three-minute wait while the network comes back online. Argh.

With 3G integrated on the iPhone, there’s no such delay. The brilliant (and often underrated) software that manages network access seems to always be in touch with the network. Even tethering (legitimately, in Canada) is fast with the iPhone. The MiFi, on the other hand, disappoints in pure day-to-day use. As a replacement for the iPhone’s data package, I can’t recommend it.

So what’s the answer? There are two paths: let the corporations decide how we should get mobile Internet access (that is, learn to get boned), or engage in a bit of civil disobedience: I’m planning to jailbreak my iPhone once the iPad arrives, and install MyWi on it. I’m not sure if this will have the same issues as MiFi, but at least it’s using the data plan I already have.

Perhaps if enough of us do this, these companies will get the message. We’re living through a sea-change, and now’s the time to say no! We should all be Internet bubbles, not the devices.