Mobile broadband routers: buyers' guide
If you require the ultimate in freedom and convenience when it comes to your internet supply, then there's no doubting mobile broadband routers are the perfect way to help achieve it. Whatever variant you choose, wireless or 3G mobile broadband allows you to take your own individual online access with you, almost anywhere you go.
And while the traditional way to access it has been a dongle or card built into a laptop, another angle worth considering is that of the mobile broadband router. This type of device allows you to share a 3G Internet connection quickly and efficiently. Anyone used to wireless router mobile broadband will know all about sharing a connection around the home - this is a way to do the same, but with your mobile broadband service - and even away from home, depending on the kit you buy.
The two types of mobile WiFi router
Generally speaking, there are two types of 3G router - the kind of router you get in homes, but with a port for a mobile broadband dongle (we'll call these 3G routers), and the more versatile 'MiFi' or 'travel router' units which we'll come to later (these can also, of course, be used in the home).
Getting up and running with a 3G router is actually a very simple process. In very basic terms all you'll really need to do is plug in a dongle, the plastic device that connects the 3G mobile broadband network with your computer. With that in place, a little bit of tweaking on the connectivity front will then mean that other devices around the house can also share the same wireless supply from a single 3G wireless router, just like they do on fixed-line.
There's not an awful lot to it because a 3G mobile broadband router is essentially a device that uses the 3G wireless network to distribute the broadband signal, just as it would if you were using it on one computer. A wireless 3G broadband router utilizes a 3G network SIM card, in much the same way as a regular mobile or smartphone, in order to provide you with your high-speed internet access.
The advent of 3G USB dongles has meant that this has become a highly popular way of getting broadband access, just read the customer reviews, and, of course, a dongle means that you don't have any cables attached to your computer, laptop or netbook. There are other benefits too, because using a 3G mobile wireless broadband router means you can quickly and easily set up other services such as a secure firewall or Virtual Personal Network (VPN).
Any downsides from using a 3G mobile broadband router?
If you choose to use a mobile broadband router in order to distribute the 3G wireless supply throughout your household, then there can be one or two issues that may come to light. For starters, mobile broadband routers are designed specifically to channel a supply to more than one machine, but because you're doing this it means the data allowance is being shared.
The implications of splitting up this allowance via the 3G wireless router device means that if other people in the house are accessing the broadband supply then your overall quota will be divided up into smaller chunks. This could prove problematical if you live in a house where everyone spends a great deal of their time online. With the whole family tapping into the mobile broadband supply via your 3G router, upload and download limits could be exceeded in no time.
All 3G mobile broadband providers have stipulations over the amount of data usage you can have, which should be detailed in their terms and conditions. If you're already a heavy user of the mobile broadband supply, then allowing everyone else in the household to access it through the 3G wireless router device could mean that you might end up exceeding these caps.
For example, you may like to download movies, while your children might love downloading countless music tracks. With all of this data being funneled through the one wireless mobile broadband router it means that your allocated allowance will be used up much faster than normal. In short, if you want to download large or multiple files, you should really think about fixed-line - unless you have an unlimited budget!
Overall upsides of using a mobile WiFi router
We've seen that a 3G wireless mobile broadband router can revolutionise the way you get your high-speed internet access around the home, but it has other plus points too. We all need much more flexibility when it comes to using our broadband access and a mobile broadband router can be utilized in a variety of on-the-go scenarios.
For example, a mobile office location can easily be set up so that everyone can tap into the 3G mobile broadband, through the one wireless router, allowing productivity to carry on as normal. You can apply the same principle to locations such as exhibitions and conferences. Even strangers or fellow networkers can use the supply, just as long as you give them access of course.
On a more home-based set of scenarios, a 3G wireless router can be well exploited if you're away from the UK on holiday, holed up on a boat or in a caravan or tent, where family members still want to get their mobile internet access fix.
Even at home, or in your main office, having a mobile WiFi router means you can have a dongle at hand and cover the loss of your fixed-line connection. You can set up the router to move onto the dongle if you get an outage on your main line, for example, meaning you keep a seamless internet connection.
Unfortunately, 3G wireless routers don't tend to come as standard with either fixed-line or mobile broadband deals, so you'd have to buy one separately. However, the alternative solution you can compare it to is most often cheap and more convenient - and that's MiFi.
So what is MiFi?
While browsing the 3G mobile broadband comparison pages it's likely you'll also hear about MiFi. This is essentially mobile WiFi supplied either by a small portable unit you can plug a dongle into, or a MiFi unit (with a SIM inside) that replaces the dongle altogether.
There is actually a device called the MiFi, like you'll see in the offers above, which again allows you to share your wireless mobile broadband connection with other WiFi enabled devices. This can include the more traditional laptop internet or netbook, but also extends to handsets like the iPod touch and games consoles. Another very handy aspect of the MiFi setup is that something like a digital camera can be connected to it and pictures can be sent directly from that to any location on the web.
Again, it's the freedom of mobile broadband access that devices like this allow that can transform the way you use your high-speed internet connection. It's possible to instantly share wireless 3G mobile broadband with family, friends and work colleagues, no matter where you are located. Just as long as there is sufficient 3G wireless availability of course. MiFi units mean you can sit as a group on a train, for example, all online on the one connection via a small, pocket sized device.
In some cases it's also possible to use this set up in order to replace an existing ADSL or cable broadband service. MiFi has the potential to allow you and your family to access one 3G mobile broadband router, and any WiFi enabled gadget can therefore gain access to the web. This is a really handy option if the children have an iPod touch for example, although you'll have to ensure that coverage is sufficient where you live in order for this plan to work out in reality.
These work in the same way as a MiFi unit, but instead of having a SIM inside, they have a USB port for a dongle to be plugged in. This is a good option particularly if you already have a mobile broadband dongle, or a few from different providers, as you can mix and match simply by plugging them into the device.
Vodafone recently introduced its 'Sharing Hub' - a unit small enough to be portable, but sharp enough to look good in the home too. You can plug your dongle into it, and then connect up to four more devices via Wi-Fi to your mobile broadband connection. However, you plug the Sharing Hub into a wall socket, so no batteries are required - but also meaning you won't be able to use it on the move. That said, it's strong Wi-Fi antenna (802.11b/g/n) makes it great for home or office use.
Additional pros and cons of WiFi and MiFi
The main thing about using a 3G wireless mobile broadband router is to pay close attention to the amount of data that you're using. You could end up paying dearly if you regularly exceed monthly quotas, so keeping tabs on how much you and your family are using the services of mobile broadband is very wise.
Similarly, 3G access can still be rather patchy, depending on where you live. Even if you are based in an area that has a good degree of network coverage there can still be fluctuations in the supply of 3G mobile broadband due to factors like thick walls and weather conditions. It's best try and research this as much as you can before entering into a contract package because there's not much point in being signed up for 3G mobile broadband access if you can't really exploit its full potential via a wireless mobile broadband router.
Security is another aspect that you'll need to pay attention to because you don't want to offer everyone else in close proximity access to your 3G mobile Wi-Fi. You'll need to ensure that if you're using a MiFi modem that you have it password protected. So, each time someone in the house wants to add a device to the wireless broadband network, via the router, they will be asked to input a network key in order to successfully start receiving the signal from the 3G router.
Is 3G wireless and MiFi the way forward?
Mobile broadband providers such as 3 Mobile are clearly keen to see 3G wireless and MiFi become more widespread as the data charges can be lucrative. But increased availability will mean more competitive pricing, which is always better for us, the consumer. Having access to a mobile WiFi service gives people easy access to high-speed internet, not only for laptops and netbooks but also handheld devices like the iPod touch.
As technology advances, and networks make better use of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HDSPA), it's likely we'll see more products and better prices. Having an HSDPA-enabled router is likely to mean faster download times over a 3G mobile broadband network. Which, in an age where we all want our digital content here and now, could mean that the marketplace for the mobile broadband router will become bigger and possibly the cheapest option.