Tag Archives: tech review

MiFi in Belgium?


This is the story of an early adopter of new technology from the city and a late adopter from the country, who both wound up buying the same technology within months of each other. That technology, known as MiFi, is so new that at this writing in July, 2010, many Western European countries don’t yet sell it. It is available in the United States and Britain. Both the early and late adapters found it compelling, for reasons that will become obvious.

Matt has a small company in the San Francisco area, Taylor Street Production LLC. He literally works in green fields, creating temporary infrastructure in a very short time. His company’s crew can speedily erect a huge stage for a rock concert in Golden Gate Park, complete with speakers and video, then load the bands’ instruments in and out as acts change. In such an environment, the latest computer and electronic technology is the rule. And so it was with MiFi.

“As soon as I read about it, I ordered one – because I immediately recognized how useful it would be for me. I grabbed it early because it was such a powerful tool for my needs,” Matt said.

Matt could arrive at a site and within minutes a WiFi network existed for his key staff. It was important that this happen smoothly, because there are hassles enough attending to the hundreds of details involved in creating a music festival site in a matter of hours or days.

Before going any further, I’d best define MiFi, which is a little plastic box that converts a mobile phone signal into a WiFi signal. MiFi is  the trademarked name for the device, made by Novatel Wireless of San Diego, California, trading as NVTL on the NASDAQ stock market.

The MiFi box, which  measures 90 mm by 60 mm by 9 mm (3.5 inches by 2.3 inches by 0.35 inches), squeezes in a mobile phone radio, a modem, and the WiFi radio. The WiFi network can connect to several computers, just like the WiFi network you may be using now to read this piece. You can also choose to connect it by wire to your laptop.  This tiny package, so simple it is operated by a single button that lights up, propelled Novatel Wireless to fame in little more than a year. More about it on Wikipedia here.

Smaller than my stapler

MiFi is starting to get competition in the United States from some Sony laptops that have the same capability built in, and from the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi smart phones. Not all reviewers are enthusiastic about the Palm, but more competitors are sure to follow  .

To continue the narrative:

Peter leads a life quite different from that of Matt. Peter is a late adopter who likes to do everything himself. He lives in an isolated area more than 150 miles from San Francisco and 20 miles from the nearest town. He constructed his own house and built his own water, electric, and sewage systems. He has no mortgage, and does not like to pay utility companies or buy new technology. For years he would not get a telephone, and after relenting on that he resisted satellite TV. He and his wife had no cell phone until his mother gave them one as a gift. He said he had no need for a computer, but once his wife forced the issue and got one Peter found he did need it. He particularly loved his access to the Internet, via dial-up.

There is a price to pay for living in a beautiful piece of near-wilderness. As dial-up Internet became increasingly outdated, Peter’s wife became more and more unhappy. Her narrow Internet pipe became clogged with family pictures of weddings and new babies that she couldn’t see, nor could she easily surf company Websites, read the news or use social media. There was no easy solution. ADSL from the telephone company’s central office in town faded long before reaching them, there was no cable, and satellite Internet was pricey.

Peter juggled his priorities and paid hundreds of dollars for a microwave transmitter. When the transmitter proved too puny to reach a distant mountain that beamed the Internet, Peter decided to spend around $700 for a heavy duty microwave transmitter. New problems cropped up. A microwave dish would turn their deck into a barbecue, slowly cooking people as they admired the sun setting over the mountains. That could be solved by moving the dish, but ditches would have to be dug and a cable buried. Line of sight to the mountain could be improved if Peter cut down several 30-meter (100-foot) Douglas Fir trees. Finally, the escalating complexity and cost of high-speed Internet became so prohibitive that Peter put the project on ice, to the consternation of his wife.

At that point, someone suggested MiFi. Peter did not hesitate long, because his wife’s unhappiness spurred him to overcome his technophobia. He purchased a MiFi and found he had instant high-speed Internet – fast enough to do most things, although video was unacceptably choppy — that worked for his household, including guests.

“It’s no bigger than a deck of cards. I have no other receiver of any kind. It just works,” Peter told me.

Matt is my son. Peter is my brother. I was the one who lugged a suitcase full of wire years ago to help install the first phone in Peter’s house. And I was the bridge who told Peter about Matt’s MiFi. His wife is still grateful.


Now I want one of these devices in Belgium, where I live. The phone stores don’t know what they are and they are not distributed here yet. Novatel Wireless has agreed to send me one to review. I will be responsible for all subscription fees to the phone company. I will let you know if the GSM Europe version works as well here as the CDMA version works in the U.S.

Addendum, August: OK, I’ve gotten a MiFi. It was easy to configure for WiFi. But I had trouble with the direct connection. It turned out the culprit was not the box, but the local mobile phone company, Proximus. I needed the proximus password, which turned out to be internet.proximus.be. For a complete list see here. (In case that link is broken I’ve put a post on this blog).  After that, it was all easy.

Addendum 2, September: OK, I am adding this at the Brussels airport. It has enough power in WiFi mode to run a video of Peaches singing “Talk to Me” while I am writing and inserting this. The video doesn’t stutter at all. I also watched political videos on the Washington Post site.