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Mobile broadband with Novatel MiFi

Several of the cell phone carriers are offering the Novatel trademarked MiFi as an access device for their data services. It is a cell phone without the screen or keyboard but with a wifi router built in.

The Virgin Mobile Broadband2go plan is a prepaid, $40/mo for unlimited but ‘reasonable’ use depending upon the Sprint 3G network. Look on the back of MiFi to find the SSID and login and then you can connect your wifi enabled computer to activate the service or adjust the router parameters. That keeps all of the custom software upstream in the router or at Virgin Mobile which seems to contrast to Verizon where you need to install access software on a Windows system to configure their version of the MiFi.

The MiFi uses micro USB for power and battery charging. The change from ‘mini’ to ‘micro’ with USB connectors [wikipedia] happened a few years back to increase reliability and provide a bit thinner connector.

When the USB is plugged into a computer, the MiFi changes from a router to a modem. On Ubuntu, it first shows as a CD ROM and that will need to be ejected or ‘safely removed’ (System->Administration->Disk Utility) before the modem will appear as a potential connection in the Network Manager. All you need do is to select the Virgin Mobile network as the provider and you are set.

If you want to keep the router function when you are charging the MiFi via a computer USB, then you can either cut the data lines in the USB cable or try a hack. The disabling of the router while connected to USB data is a configuration option buried in the MiFi. On some versions, you can toggle the setting by saving the configuration, changing the option, then restoring the backed up configuration. That option appears to have been disabled in the Virgin Mobile version of the MiFi.

The biggest problem with the MiFi is that it is so small it would be easy to lose it. The cell phone part is reasonably transparent, the registration with a service provider is straghtforward, and the appearance as a wifi network router has all the usual features and capabilities with a decent web interface.

Sprint’s data network might not be as extensive at Verizon’s and that may be a factor depending upon where you are when you need to connect to the I’net. The coverage maps don’t tell the whole story so actual experience is necessary.

It is low power to run for 4 to 8 hours on its battery and it is limited to only five connections. What you get, though is a 3G (about a megabit per second) I’net connection that is on demand and pay as you go for personal use.

The MiFi runs about $150 at WalMart and the Broadband2Go is a prepay as you need it service. That makes it a good option for the RV adventurer.

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