The British are officially in love with the internet. 77% of households are connected (Source: ONS), we spend more money shopping online than any other developed country (Source: Telegraph) and we are also driving the growth of the 'mobile internet' as more than half of the mobile phones we buy are now smartphones with full internet access (Source: Velositor). The British now expect to be connected wherever they are.
For the average family, this could prove expensive and complicated. After all, the internet is not just for the grown-ups. The kids want in too and whilst only a minority at the moment have their own smartphone, many of their gadgets connect to the internet via wifi (think ipods, Nintendo 3DS, tablet computers and the like) and even the parents may now find they have more than one gadget that's lost without an internet connection.
So, you're part of a family who need to cheaply connect everyone to the net when out and about, or perhaps you're in a line of work where you travel a lot and managing separate data contracts for your phone, laptop and tablet just seems silly, or getting fixed broadband is just not possible for you - what do you do?
The answer might be to consolidate all your data contracts into one by buying a 'MIFI' or 'mobile WIFI hotspot' and I've been playing with Three's offering, the Huawei E586 to see whether it's a practical solution.
A Huawei E586 is an attractively designed 'pebble' shaped device which connects to Three's mobile network for an internet connection and shares it to up to five gadgets simultaneously via WIFI. An on-board battery keeps it running for up to 5 hours and it will charge over USB, meaning it should be easy to keep topped up wherever you are. An attractive docking stand is included for charging at home, or on your desk and the styling and build quality are again, very high.
Setting up Three's version is simplicity itself. Push and hold the power button until the small, but clear screen appears. Give it a moment to connect and then push the 'Key' button to see what the network name and key is. Now on your gadget of choice, connect to the network enter the displayed key and from that moment on, whenever the MIFI is on, that gadget will automatically have internet access!
Three advertise it as 'mobile broadband', which raises the question, how fast is it?
Well of course as with all mobile phones it's all about the coverage first. If you can't get on the network in the first place for lack of signal, what you have is a useless pebble with 'Searching' on the screen. You'll want to check your mobile network's signal coverage map before considering. Three use the very latest 3G technology that can theoretically hit 21Mbps per second, much faster than the average home broadband speed in the UK, which is around 5-6mbps at the moment, so the potential is there.
The reality is that even in the best signal areas, you'll never hit those advertised speeds. They're only available to geeks in controlled laboratory conditions. However, in my tests I was able to get a best connection of 4.5Mbps, which if it were consistently available would be good enough for some to consider further consolidating their access by dumping the landline! I could surf anything including watching high quality video via the BBC iPlayer. But that was in a town centre in Surrey and those speeds are not to be banked on everywhere. At home, out in the suburbs of Hampshire I was able to get just over 2Mbps, which doesn't sound a lot, but its actually plenty for web-surfing and even YouTube worked well, so long as I wasn't desperate to watch everything in HD.
So, the moniker 'mobile broadband' does seem fair and you genuinely can get something akin to your home internet access performance out of one of these where the coverage is good. They're also not too expensive to run. The version I tested is circa £80 on pay as you go (with 3GB of data included, valid for 3 months). £10 will buy you 1GB worth of access, valid for thirty days and there are day rates too for more occasional use. Helpfully the screen also tells you how much data you've used, so there should never be any surprises. Larger top-ups are available.
Regular users should look to contracts where much larger data caps are available for sensible money, so long as you sign up for a year or more.
The one downside of the MIFI is that it's yet another device to carry and remember to charge. After all, popular internet enabled electronics like laptops, mobiles and tablets are all (usually optionally) available with their own 3G connections which is surely a more elegant solution? Also, smartphone users often have access to a function called 'tethering' where the phone's 3G connection can be shared out over WIFI to your other devices, exactly what the MIFI does.
Let's deal with those one at a time. Integrating 3G into most gadgets is pretty expensive. An iPad for example costs an extra £100 to equip and it's not even an option on laptops until you get to the pricer models. So the MIFI is likely to work out cheaper and as the other gadgets come and go, you won't need to replace it in a hurry, so you can buy the cheaper 'WIFI only' versions of all your tablets etc and maybe save hundreds. It also has a trick up it's sleeve. You can put it quite far away from where you're sitting. Why is this good? Well, whilst on holiday in Bath I wanted to surf the net whilst sitting on the bed, but unfortunately the mobile signal had reduced to practically nothing as signals can fade traveling through solid stuff like thick Bath-stone walls. By putting the Huawei E586 on the Window sill, I was able to sit anywhere I liked and still enjoy a full signal. A 3G iPad user would have no choice but to sit where the signal dictated.
But a mobile phone with 'tethering' activated will do that too, right? Well, yes - but your mobile is pretty important when you're out and about. Tethering is a big drain on the battery and you'll find you won't be able to surf in such a carefree manner for fear of running out of battery before you get home. Tethering isn't usually free either, your supplier may charge you more to use it - but for those who don't pay extra, it is a sensible option for an occasional need.
For everyone else, I would suggest MIFIs are a convenient way to access the mobile internet, particularly if you have more than one device you'd like to access from and it may save you some money too!