Looking for a mobile data plan for your WiFi-only tablet?
UPDATED 14 July 2012 – problem with power adapter
The Verizon MIFI device just may be your answer. It provides mobile data at 3G speeds (or 4G if it is available in your area) to as many as five Wifi-enabled devices nearby. Verizon offers two different versions of the 4G device (one manufactured by Samsung & another that is manufactured by Novatel but is Verizon-branded) and both seem to provide similar service.
I bought the device and set up a 5 Gigabyte (unlimited data is gone) plan with VZN and have been using it for a little over a year. So far, I am quite satisfied. The fact that my area has LTE (true 4G service) makes this a fantastic service. Here at home (a rural area in Southeast Lousiana) I get speeds of up to 12mb download & 5mb upload. (My home cable service is only 18mb/3mb.)
Samsung version: I originally bought the Samsung version and used it while on a visit to my daughter’s wedding in New Harmony, Indiana. The 3G service was pretty much available everywhere I traveled. I did not observe any 4G service. The Samsung device does not provide any means to display the relative strength of the data signal. Neither is there any way to determine the the level of charge on the battery – both bits of information would be very valuable. I did have some problems when the device got very hot in my pocket when 3 or 4 devices were using its service. Also, there were several occasions when the device simply powered off by its self and would not come back online until it cooled. I took it back to VZN and, although they charged me $35 restocking fee, they exchanged it for the Novatel device.
Novatel version: This device is branded only with the Verizon name but the enclosed documentation states that it is manufactured by Novatel Wireless. The device includes an LCD screen with the standard “bars” to display the signal level and a battery charge indicator. Although the Samsung device had separate LEDs for 3G and 4G service, the Novatel uses color to distinguish between the two (violet for 3G and green for 4G).
Setup: There really is very little setup. The VZN agent inserted the SIM card and provisioned the device. I only needed to turn it on for it to link to the VZN network and start providing Wifi service to nearby devices. Both versions are set to default to WPA security and all connecting devices must provide the associated password. I have connected as many as 4 devices at one time and I believe that up to 5 are allowed but the mobile data is shared among all connected devices.
Speed: In my experience, Verizon’s 3G service generally operates at up to 700Kbs downlink and 300kbs uplink. This is faster than I saw with AT&T’s data network. I have gotten similar speeds on T-Mobile’s network but the TMO coverage is severely limited in this area. Verizon says that its 4G LTE service will be about 10 times faster than the present 3G service. The local agents said that it would be from 5-15Mbs. That is comparable to my current cable ISP.
Coverage: So far, I have not NOTICED any location where there was no 3G service. Presently, only 55 markets have 4G service but VZN projects to have LTE service in 200 markets by the end of 2011 and to cover two-thirds of the US population by mid 2012.
WiFi: Both of the VZN Mifi devices appear to serve an area only slightly less than a typical wireless access point. Although the best connection is from devices located within a few feet of the Mifi, it still provides acceptable performance with devices around 30-40 feet away. In my tests, I got 600/100 Kbs when the device was a couple feet away. I tried from about 40 feet away and through three walls, I still got 450/100 Kbs.
Battery life: The battery charge on both devices is similar to many Android phones. With heavy use, after about 3-4 hours you probably ought to look for a charger. With occasional use by a single device, either unit will last all day.
Real use: I use the Mifi with my GTab, my wife’s (rooted) Nook Color, my TMO G2 plus iPhones owned by family members. Since it is not common that all users would require a full speed data connection, sharing the connection between two or three people is not generally a problem. This is a truly great device and makes the GTab (or other Wifi-only devices) function as if they were data-enabled. This allows these devices to do video chat, etc with apps such as Tango or Fring. I have not yet perfected the technique but I am pretty certain that I can set up full VOIP service using the GTab (or other similar devices) where I can make and receive calls to and from regular land line or cell phones. More on that later… Here is the link to my article on VOIP: Free Mobile Phone Service.
Problems: Other than the hardware issue with the Samsung device, there have not been any significant problems. One WEIRD issue is my inability to register on the my.verizon.com site. In order to authenticate, you must receive a text message on the VZN device – which the Mifi is incapable of receiving. The alternative is that eventually, they are supposed to send a code in postal mail – I still have not received it. Until I get registered on the site, I cannot determine how much data I have consumed (could be a problem).
Another problem that I have encountered is that the device is picky about the power adapter. Although it powers from a standard micro USB connector, not all power sources will work with it. I find this problem with my automobile adapter (all 110VAC adapters that output at least 1 Amp seem to work fine). I have tried a half dozen cigarette-lighter USB adapters and only one (a multi-voltage type with a secondary USB outlet) will work with my MiFi. When I plug the cable into any other USB source, the device actually powers off. It appears to be charging but it will not provide WiFi at the same time.
Cost & value: Both devices sell for $150 less a $50 mail-in rebate. There is a $35 activation fee unless your employer has a discount program with VZN (be sure to check, my military retirement scored a 12% discount on data and waived activation fee.) Verizon offers a 5 Gigabyte tier for $50 per month or a 10 Gig tier for $80 per month. Both plans charge $10/Gig overage. It may have been a special promotion but they quoted me $40 for the 5 Gig plan so I took that (less the 12% employer discount). I was paying about the same amount for my TMO data plan on my G2 before they released me from the contract. Now, I can use my G2 on the VZN data network and only need to figure out the VOIP stuff for voice and text. It is not “unlimited” but overall, it will be a great value if I can make the VOIP work.
Recommendation: If you do not have a smart phone under contract, then this device, coupled with any Wifi-enabled phone or tablet, can provide you with great data service to that device and up to four others – for a lot less than the normal cost. You can pick your choice of tablet WITHOUT a contract & still get what most people feel is the best mobile network data. You get the great Verizon coverage & speed, using your choice of device – what could be better? Although it is not yet available, there are suggestions that VZN will offer a family plan for data. If so, they may offer a “bit bucket” for your VZN smartphones and this device.
Bottom line: This device is 4G ready and should be “obsolete-proof” for at least the 2-year contract period. The convenience & portability of having your own WiFi hotspot on the VZN 4G network is definitely sweet! I rate it nearly perfect (except for the contracted monthly fee): 4.5 stars.