The Sprint 3G Mifi: One Year Later

It’s just over a year ago that I took the plunge and ordered a Sprint 3G Mifi. It was move inspired by a tweet from Andy Abramson pointing out a deal on Amazon.com. The device was free with a two year contract at $59.95/month.

I’ve put the device to good use over the course of the year. It’s been very handy indeed. However, I suspect that we shall part company shortly.

I really don’t have any complaints about the Sprint 3G service. It’s been pretty good. There have been a few places where the Mifi could only connect at 1xRTT, but I’ve usually had decent 3G data rates in the locations where I tend to travel.

The Mifi itself, and Sprint’s handling of it as a product, is another matter. There have been some issues.

The battery life on the Mifi I find to be in the 2 hour range, which is merely adequate. The simple fact is that I most typically am not sharing the wifi with multiple devices. That implies that it’d be a lot more convenient to have a USB dongle and not need to worry about the battery life at all….ever!

There have been a dozen occasions when the Mifi was shared between several laptops. Typically these were family gatherings in my wife’s home town….a rural place. Without the Mifi there was no internet access at all. The Mifi let everyone kill time online when it was too cold, hot or dark outside to be doing other things.

The Mifi made me unusually popular on such occasions, as I was the only one in the family who had such a device. Even so, most of the time it only needed to service one computer, so a USB dongle would have sufficed.

At the point when I ordered my new netbook, an HP Mini 5102, I gave some consideration to ordering the built-in 3G modem. However, a built-in device would be too limiting. There are times when I need access from my larger laptop, and even occasions when I need ‘net access from a customers computer. The USB dongle provides a necessary level of portability.

I also find it problematic that in order to have 3G/4G cellular data access on multiple devices I require multiple accounts, incurring multiple monthly charges. If I can share voice minutes across a family plans then I should be able to use any number of 3G/4G capable devices on one account as long as I stay within my allocated data each month.

It would be great if the ability to share the access over Wifi could be retrofit using another device. For a couple of years an Apple Airport Express lived in my luggage permanently. When traveling I used it to provide Wifi in hotels where only wired connections existed.

Such things came to known as “travel routers” and are now available from several manufacturers. It would be outstanding is such a device existed for the 3G/4G USB dongle. Just a small, cheap embedded host that used the 3G/4G as its WAN connection, and shared the service out over Wifi.

Returning to the issue of battery life, some will surely note that you can tether the Mifi to a PC using a USB-to-micro-USB cable. When you do this the Mifi shuts off its Wifi radio, acting as a USB modem to the attached PC while at the same time charging its battery…or at very least running on the endless power from the USB bus.

Well, Verizon provides the requisite cable with every Mifi that they sell. Sprint doesn’t. I could not find the cable offered on Sprint’s web site so I bought one online for a few dollars. However, I’ve never been able to get the Mifi to load drivers to my laptop. It’s supposed to have a small flash partition on-board and auto-start the installer, but mine simply doesn’t. So the only thing I’ve been able to do with the USB connection is charge the Mifi.

My motivation for thinking about all of this is the most recent offer that I’ve seen from Clear. They offer a 3G/4G USB dongle for $40/month. The service is unmetered when in 4G coverage, and capped at 5 GB/month in 3G areas. The 3G service is provided by Sprint who is a partner in Clear.

As described previously, I used Clear while in Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention back in April. That experience was very good indeed.

The Clear offer is one third less than the monthly cost of my current Sprint 3G contract. That contract has another year to run, but I could buy it out for a $200 early termination fee. Since the Mifi was free in the first case the ETF really only amounts to paying for the device at the end of the contract.

I could be free of the Mifi’s headaches, enjoy 4G speed in some locations and 3G everywhere else. And I’d be paying less each month. It certainly is tempting.

Then again, T-Mobile has rolled out their quasi-4G HSPA+ service which is supposed to be faster than Clear’s Wimax. Also, they’ll soon be launching their new G2 phone which just might be the Android phone that I’ve been waiting for. If the G2 acts as a pocket hotspot then perhaps it could be a cheaper alternative to separate voice & data accounts?

Perhaps I should practice some patience? Yes, patience….that’s the thought for today.

  • “It would be outstanding is such a device existed for the 3G/4G USB dongle. Just a small, cheap embedded host that used the 3G/4G as its WAN connection, and shared the service out over Wifi.”

    I use such a beast. Huawei D100. Mains powered. Basically you plug your USB stick in the top, and then connect to it via WiFi. It also has a LAN connection if need be. Works very well indeed with all the USB dongles I have, though they happen also to be Huawei 🙂

    Faris.

    • Faris,

      What has been you experience using this device? Which carrier provides service for your USB stick? I’m curious to know if there are any “gotchas.” Since most carriers have some kind of driver that must be loaded to the host PC I’m wondering how it manages the sign-on process?

      I posted a question about this device in the forums over at Small Net Builder to see what the experience of the broader community has been using such things.

      http://forums.smallnetbuilder.com/showthread.php?p=22437#post22437

  • Greg

    Wait it out the second year. The $20/month you could potentially save would only save you $40 over the year due to the $200 ETF you would pay.

    4G is a very crazy space right now. Tmobile is putting out their Quasi 4G, Verizon is about to roll out LTE, and heck, even Clear is talking about switching to Wimax.

    Since you are already under contract and have a device that seems to meet your needs while traveling, I would wait it out and let the field settle down.

    By then, you will likely be enjoying an Androd phone that allows wifi tethering and can dump the mifi free and clear.

    Have you tried the mifi on a Windows 7 machine? I have a similar problem with my old Moto Q with sprint. No matter how much time I spent on Google, I couldnt find an appropriate driver… then I plugged it into a Win 7 machine and magically the correct driver was found. With the popularity of the Mifi, its worth a shot.

    • Clear IS Wimax at present…but may be leaning towards LTE once Verizon gets their rolled out.

      Yes, my netbook is running Win7 Pro. It doesn’t see the Mifi either.

      It’s the battery life issue that plagues me about the Mifi. That and the fact that it often disconnects from the 3G net, requiring a restart to connect reliably again. I doubt I’ll get through the entire second year with this same device. It’s just too annoying.

  • Since you’re interested in Android phones just wait. Most new models coming out now have a provider-sanctioned hotspot app in the factory firmware, and of course you can usually root the phone and install android-wifi-tether if the phone’s popular enough to be rooted (or is one of the Google dev phones as history indicates the G2 may become). I use that all the time on my Evo and it works brilliantly.

    I agree on the point about multiple data devices. I know I’d have more data devices than just a smartphone if I could “add a line” for a reasonable price. I just looked at what it would cost me to add a line with Sprint if I had a family plan and it would be $10/mo for a voice plan or $20/mo for a voice+data plan. That to me says they consider the addition of a data line worth $10/mo, so why they won’t offer me something like that without the voice I have no idea.

    My only guess is data usage management. Most mobile providers seem to be having trouble keeping up with the demands of an increasingly smartphone-equipped population, so I’m sure they’re in no hurry to make it even easier to justify another device using wireless data.

  • The D100 seems to work a bit magically, to be honest.

    It is possible that it will only work with Huawai devices, which would not be unreasonable I guess. What I usually do is stick to one, err, stick and just change the SIM in it (my 3G dongles are all unlocked), even though I have quite a collection of the things by now.

    In the device’s GUI you can adjust the necessary settings, which are generally just the APN, username and password. However, I’ve not found this to be necessary – it has a built-in list of these and seems to select the right one based on the network being connected to automatically.

    I’m based in the UK, incidentally. The D100 is generally only sold by T-Mobile (locked), but legitimately unlocked units are available via the usual online routes.