Putting Hot On The Spot: Expanding Wi-Fi's Device Support And Coverage Plot
As previously mentioned, I brought both my Apple MacBook Air and my 3G iPad to S. Korea last week. I stayed at a very nice hotel in Seoul that came with complimentary Wi-Fi service, but as I soon discovered, it was restricted to a single device (i.e. single MAC address) per room. After initially wireless-connecting the iPad, I then attempted to register the MacBook Air via the same last name/room number combination, which the system summarily rejected. A quick, sheepish call down to the front desk got me going with my primary computer again, but I decided not to push my dual-computer luck for the ensuing days’ stays.
My experience reminded me of a topic I’ve long planned to blog about (and have already discussed in past posts, at least in part), that being the personal hotspot which enables multiple devices to link with the same WAN connection (and each other) at no incremental charge over a single-device base case. After all, near-constant Internet connectivity is a key requirement for my particular job. My room also offered a CAT5 Ethernet cable, for example; had I remembered to pack my small-form-factor travel router, I could have employed it to achieve my shared-access objective.
Had CAT5 not been available, however, I couldn’t have used the travel router even if I’d brought it with me on the trip. The 3Com OfficeConnect Wireless 54Mbps 11g Travel Router supports router (duh), access point and client modes, but it doesn’t offer a wireless-to-wireless bridge option. Even if it did, such a non-standard mode is rarely usable in practice, plus it would have required knowledge of the hotel router’s MAC address. And since bridge mode simply passes along client MAC addresses to the hotel router versus acting as a router itself, I’d still get charged for per-client access.
Another option, if you have a USB, PCMCIA or ExpressCard cellular adapter (or a supported USB-tethered mobile phone for that matter) and associated cellular service plan, is to employ a cellular router. I’ve written about such devices several times before; from Kyocera, for example, and Linksys. Verizon recently took cellular simplicity to the next level with the Novatel Wireless-developed MiFi, which both embeds the cellular subsystem and runs off an integrated long-life battery (my neighbors, who own one, absolutely adore it). Sprint predictably followed in its CDMA competitor’s path a short time later (likely after Verizon’s exclusivity contract with Novatel Wireless expired), as have other cellular providers. And more recently, Sprint upped the ante with the Overdrive, a portable hotspot that supports both EV-DO and newer, faster WiMAX technology, the latter automatically selected whenever you’re in a CLEAR-serviced region.
What happens, though, if you don’t have the fiscal resources (or for that matter, the multi-gadget-toting desire) to drag an additional cellular data-supportive router along with you on future trips? If your handset or service plan doesn’t support USB or Bluetooth phone-as-modem tethering? Or if you’ve got a device like the iPad, which ‘conveniently’ supports neither the DUN (Dial-Up Networking) or PAN (Personal Area Networking) Bluetooth profiles, thereby not enabling you to wirelessly piggyback on your phone’s cellular data features (thereby forcing you, in exchange, to pay for a separate cellular plan for the tablet)?
In such cases, you could instead tap into your phone’s built-in Wi-Fi subsystem, transforming it into a mostly-transmitter instead of a mostly-receiver. For my jailbroken iPhone 3G, for example, there’s a software package called MyWi which I haven’t tried (in part because since my carrier-unlocked handset is running on T-Mobile’s network, it only delivers EDGE cellular data speeds), but which purports to transfer data between the integrated cellular and Wi-Fi links for subsequent handshake with 802.11-connected clients. Having both the cellular data and Wi-Fi subsystems simultaneously (and vigorously) operational is a battery life killer, of course, but that’s what AC adapters are for. At CES, Palm unveiled similar capabilities for its Pre devices; three months later, Verizon dropped the service cost to $0. Just yesterday, Google touted built-in (and carrier-dependent) hotspot support as a key advancement in ‘Frodo’ v2.2 Android. And third-party software to implement the function is also available for Symbian- and Windows Mobile-powered handsets.
Or maybe you’d prefer to dispense with slow, glitchy cellular connectivity and leverage the built-in Ethernet capabilities of your laptop. Revisiting that earlier CAT5 mention, both OS X and Windows (along with, presumably, at least some Linux distros, though I can’t confirm from personal experience) support spanning between a wired Ethernet connection and Wi-Fi, essentially transforming your computer into a wireless access point so that other LAN clients can connect to it (and from there to the Internet). And if you don’t have an available CAT5 connection, that’s no problem. Intel’s latest drivers enable the Virtual WiFi feature built into (but not exposed in) Windows 7 by creating a virtual wireless adapter, thereby enabling a computer to act as the earlier-described Ethernet-to-wireless bridge with a routing function bonus. And third-party software completes the Windows 7 picture for other companies’ wireless adapters. Keep in mind that prior to Windows 7 Virtual WiFi and Connectify, the implemented function was that of an access point, not a router, so sharing a common hotel router connection among multiple LAN clients isn’t supported.
Who says tech innovation is over? Happy weekend, all.