Sep 032010
 
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Someday, they’ll build wireless Internet into every building, just the way they build in running water, heat and electricity today.

Someday, we won’t have to drive around town looking for a coffee shop when we need to check our e-mail.

If you want ubiquitous Internet today, though, you have several choices. They’re all compromised and all expensive.

You could get online using only a smartphone, but you’ll pay at least $80 a month and you’ll have to view the Internet through a shrunken keyhole of a screen. You could equip your laptop with one of those cellular air cards or U.S.B. sticks, which cost $60 a month, but you’d be limited to 5 gigabytes of data transfer a month (and how are you supposed to gauge that?). You could use tethering, in which your laptop uses your cellphone as a glorified Internet antenna — but that adds $20 or $30 to your phone bill, has a fixed data limit and eats through your phone’s battery charge in an hour.

Last year, you could hear minds blowing coast to coast when Novatel introduced a new option: the MiFi. It creates a personal Wi-Fi bubble, a portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot that, because it’s the size of a porky credit card, can go with you everywhere. The MiFi gets its Internet signal from a 3G cellphone network and converts it into a Wi-Fi signal that up to five people can share.

You can just leave the thing in your pocket, your laptop bag or your purse to pump out a fresh Internet signal to everyone within 30 feet, for four hours on a charge of the removable battery. You’re instantly online whenever you fire up your laptop, netbook, Wi-Fi camera, game gadget, iPhone or iPod Touch.

The MiFi released by Virgin Mobile this week ($150) is almost exactly the same thing as the one offered by Verizon and, until recently, Sprint — but there’s a twist that makes it revolutionary all over again.

The Virgin MiFi, like its rivals, is still an amazing gizmo to have on long car rides for the family, on woodsy corporate offsite meetings, at disaster sites, at trade show booths or anywhere you can’t get Wi-Fi. If you live alone, the MiFi could even be your regular home Internet service, too — one that you can take with you when you head out the door. And it’s still insanely useful when you’re stuck on a plane on a runway.

But three things about the Virgin MiFi are very, very different. First, Virgin’s plan is unlimited. You don’t have to sweat through the month, hoping you don’t exceed the standard 5-gigabyte data limit, as you do with the cellular-modem products from Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. (If you exceed 5 gigabytes, you pay steep per-megabyte overage charges, or in T-Mobile’s case, you get your Internet speed slowed down for the rest of the month.)

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