I must have been reading about those “Wifi-to-3G” routers for years. USB “dongle” internet access has always been excruciatingly painful on the multitude of operating systems that I use. Eventually, I ended up building my own Wifi-to-3G gateway with OpenBSD on ALIX hardware, with decent success on the design, but no real-life deployment due to general awkwardness of the solution. Phone-based access points, on the other hand, always used highly secure WEP encryption (if any), which seems to have changed only recently, with the advent of powerful Android handsets.
It wasn’t before mid-2010 until the more portable stand-alone Wifi gateways actually showed up here and there (as in “I heard about somebody who knew someone whose colleague had one”). Finding out that there was not only the “Mi-Fi” offering from Novatel wireless, but also one at half the price from our communist friends at Huawei, it was clear that I had to have one. At the time in July 2010, it was somewhat painful the get hold of it, but in the end, I acquired the newer “E5832″ (or “E5″ in short) with dot-matrix display.
The E5 is very small, like the smallest mobile phones (think Siemens S55), and very light. Most of the space is occupied by the battery. As advertised, the E5 serves as a gateway to access mobile internet via Wifi. As an access point, it serves up to 5 Wifi clients with WPA. (Let’s hope the 5 client limitation stems from the chipset and the firmware has not been intentionally crippled.) The web-based configuration tool is accessible via Wifi and pretty much resembles any old router configuration interface, including detailed DHCP and port forwarding settings, plus the ability to set the APN and store multiple internet APN profiles. The PIN for the SIM card can be saved in the web interface.
The E5 arrived shortly before my family departed on a vacation to Italy. There, it was used with our local prepaid SIM card from TIM with a “100 hours internet” option to bypass internet roaming charges on the iPhone and have internet access on the laptop.
From my experience the year before, I knew that 3G coverage would be extremely scarce in the place where we were going to stay, and so it was. However, after careful positioning, the E5 could reliably pick up the next 3G cell which was across the lake, about 7-8 kilometers away. With the E5 in position, Wifi was very usable, although not from all corners of the appartment. I have no scientific numbers, but the iPhone did receive the E5 from approx. 4 meters with two walls in between, but not from 6 meters with three walls in between.
Battery life, again no scientific numbers, but at least 2 hours from one charge; if I were to go out on a limb, I would even say 3 hours. Keep in mind that when used with a laptop, the E5 can always draw power from a USB port.
I noticed that the E5 has a mobile web interface as well, but unlike the full interface, it doesn’t display connection details when not logged in, and is limited in features, so it really isn’t more than just a nice touch.
The only weak point about the E5 is that startup takes forever. From power-on till being able to use the Wifi connection, it takes at least 60 seconds, which is far too long to quickly look up something on the iPhone.
An interesting detail for iPhone location hackers might be that the iPhone’s location services have always placed me at the 3G cell to which the E5 was connected. I’m not entirely sure what conclusions can be drawn from that. The IP address from the screenshot, for one, does not (via GeoIP) resolve to the location in question.
Overall, it can be said that the E5 completely takes the pain out of mobile internet. No dongles, no makeshift Windows drivers, no Bluetooth PAN, no PPP configuration on Linux, no scripts gathered from years-old forum entries, no expensive connection manager software for your Mac, no Wifi hacks on your mobile phone, nothing. Just use Wifi, and go.