Whether you call them MiFis, Portable Routers, Battery Routers, Portable Hotspots or merely "that thing that I use to connect my stuff when I'm out", portable battery powered Wi-Fi 3G routers are hot right now. That's partly because most of them do run a little warm after a while, but also because with Optus joining the fray only this week, all the major carriers now offer a pre-paid, portable Wi-Fi 3G Modem option. But how do they stack up in value terms?
Internode also offer a MiFi portable router, but that's a contract only option, and we're purely looking at the pre-paid space here. Most of these devices (or similar units) are available with post-paid contract terms, and you could also look at units such at Netcomm's MyZone router to throw into that mix.
We've chosen a 1GB recharge rate for our table below as a representative sample price; lower than that and you normally pay an exorbitant per MB rate. All carriers do offer larger data packages, normally with longer expiry periods for more costly recharge amounts.
||Cost for 1GB recharge/Expiry
||Mini WiFi Modem
|8GB / 180 days
||$30 / 30 days
||Pre-Paid Mobile Wi-Fi
||5GB / 90 days
||$40 / 30 days
||3GB / 30 days
||$29 (2GB) / 30 days
||4GB / 30 days
||$19 / 30 days
Optus' basic Mini WiFi offering looks very compelling at first glance. Six months of expiry for the provided 8GB of data is very generous indeed, and for intermittent users, it might be all that you'd need. Optus also throws in free Facebook, Twitter and MySpace access along with the deal. Even the unlocking procedure is decent; once you've hit $100 worth of recharges, Optus will unlock the unit.
The fine print
The devil is, as the cliche goes, in the detail. First up, residents of the Northern Territory or Tasmania? Not for you. The real kicker with Optus' Mini WiFi is the way that Optus counts data, which isn't in a per KB or per MB increment. Instead, it's in 10MB increments, counted both ways. That means, mathematically speaking, your 'generous' 8GB allowance might be worth a whole lot less, especially if you use it for very small connection sessions.
The best value part of Telstra's Pre-Paid Mobile Wi-Fi has to be the bundled 5GB of data that comes with it; a similar recharge (technically 'up to' 6GB) would cost you $100 by itself. Telstra also offers a small amount of call data with its recharges, which would only be useful if you planned to swap the SIM out of the Mobile Wi-Fi and into an actual phone.
The fine print
Data is charged per MB, counted both ways. Unlocking the modem costs a hefty $100 extra. It comes with its own SIM, but if you wanted to switch another Telstra-provided SIM in there, you'd have to be careful. NextG Mobile SIMs (with a browsing pack, unless you plan on going broke very quickly) and Telstra Business Mobile Broadband SIMs will work with the unit according to Telstra. Post-Paid BigPond Mobile Broadband SIMs simply won't. Recharges feature the weasel words 'up to' a given MB/GB amount, and that's because of the way Telstra works out the actual data rate, which isn't fixed by the amount you've paid upfront, but instead based on, and we quote, "your most recent recharge denomination." It's basically an inducement to spend more, as if you roll over existing credit at a higher rate, you'll access slightly better per-MB data rates. It's also horribly confusing.
Oddly, Vodafone don't do a 1GB recharge option, opting instead (at the time of writing) for 500MB and 2GB recharges. The 2GB recharge is quite good value broken down into 1GB chunks at $14.50/GB, but you'd need to power through the data quickly with a 30 day expiry period, or recharge (up to a maximum of 14GB).
The fine print
Data is counted both ways in MB increments. An 'unlocking fee' applies, but Vodafone's web site makes it quite hard to work out what the unlocking fee actually is; it's certainly not clearly stated on the pages for the Pocket WiFi. A little digging (with credit where credit's due, via this Whirlpool forum thread http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/archive/1504315) suggests (http://vodafone.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/2909) the unlock fee should be either $75 in the first six months or $25 thereafter. But why make it so hard to find, Vodafone?
Virgin's the sole operator still charging data at per KB rates, which means those who do lots of small checks for email or similar should get considerably better overall value out of their prepaid payments. While it's on the Optus network (Virgin's an Optus subsidiary) there's none of the ridiculous 10MB increments here. Virgin's even more generous than Optus in terms of unlocking the device, as you only need to hit the $80 recharge mark before qualifying. The pre-paid WiFi modem has a slight technical limitation compared to the competition, in that it'll only connect three devices where the others will do up to five.
The fine print
This is the Optus network, so once again, Northern Territorians and residents of the Apple Isle, you're plumb out of luck (not to mention coverage). Virgin's also the only carrier that lists a peer to peer restriction for its mobile broadband product. Fans of torrents would do well to note that the network restricts P2P traffic to an agonisingly slow 32Kbps.