People Want Mobile Broadband, But Not Personal Hotspots

44 Comments

Global sales of mobile broadband devices rose 55 percent in 2009 over the previous year, according to a recent Infonetics Research report, even despite the effects of the economic downturn. Even more surprising, however, was that sales of personal hotspots such as Novatel’s MiFi fell 28 percent.

As 3G technologies transition to faster speeds and fourth-generation wireless networks are launched, it makes sense that overall sales of mobile broadband devices would — but convenient personal hotspot sales should be on the rise, too. In fact I would have expected them to have been increasing at a faster rate than other 3G solutions like embedded modules inside laptops or USB dongles. These pocket-sized personal hotspots connect to the web just like their USB counterparts, but easily share that pipe with several other devices over a Wi-Fi connection — usually for the same monthly fee. With the ubiquity of Wi-Fi radios in computers, phones and even consumer electronics (think handheld games and digital cameras), a personal hotspot makes far more financial sense. And that shared connection adds value to existing devices that can leverage it.

User confusion about personal hotspots may be one reason for decreasing sales. Whenever I take the MiFi out at coffee shops or around other people, I’m invariably asked what it is and what it does. Although these small routers debuted just prior to the January 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, people simply don’t know about them — a point driven home by Novatel in an earnings call.

Is this lack of knowledge encouraged by carriers? With the same monthly fee as a single-use 3G solution, I have to wonder how actively carriers promoting the MiFi devices. Why sell one mobile broadband enabler that shares the connection when you can sell multiple solutions and multiply revenues?

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Image courtesy of Novatel Wireless

44 Comments

Joshua Price

I have a grandfathered unlimited aircard USB720 with verizon that I pay around 65 with tax and a unlimited aircard USB598 sierra wireless from sprint for less then I’m paying verizon…Both cards are plugged into a cradle point MBR 1200 router with load balancing turned on. Sprint still gives unlimited aircards to BUSINESS customers but not consumers.. I don’t agree with those caps at all. I’m using the cards to their fullest at getting about 35gigs on verizon and about half that on sprint, as the sprint network is still on the original evdo and not evdo revA. So, in retro spect if you have a business, even if its a small home based business, look into a corporate account to get those unlimited aircards…

melani

I’ll admit that I haven’t read all of the earlier comments, however, I am in the market for a device to allow me to connect my laptop (etc) to the internet while traveling around the country.

I am looking into a Palm Pre smartphone which includes a mobile 3G hotspot. The monthly data fee through my carrier (Ver.) is about $30 for unlimited data usage. I believe this would solve my quest for a personal hotspot, but am not as knowledgeable about the various products as most of you.

Does anyone see any drawbacks to this?
(Another option is to buy a Mobile Data card, but the monthly fee is about $60 per month with a data limit.)

Scotty

I picked up an Overdrive today after a co-worker tested my workspace to show I had 4G service with his Overdrive.

I explained my rational to the Sprint store manager and she liked my thinking so much she spiffed me a free month of service.

All my mobile equipment is now 4G: Nexus One, iPad, Macbook Pro.

Sure I could have waited to buy the iPad 3G but I would have paid more for the equipment $130 vs $50 and I would have had “More bars to less backhaul”.

Having on my Scott e vest with iPad in the designated iPod pocket probably didn’t hurt my case either. :-)

On the way home on the bus I had 10 apps updating from the app store and the WSJ picking up the “now” edition no problemo whilst the Nexus One was streaming video via 4G to pass the time. The Scott e vest makes a nice “bus office” as well.

Richard

I think personal hotspots will become very popular as people get more and more WiFi enabled devices (game consoles, cameras) – even for laptops the hassle of getting 3G dongles working can be significant, whereas a personal hotspot device will ‘just work’ because WiFi is much more reliable.

Software-based personal hotspots will be big too – just use WiFi to ‘tether’ to your smartphone, and take advantage of its data allowance. You can already do this on Symbian, but on relatively crippled platforms such as the iPhone you will need to jailbreak your phone first.

Heather

Steve Jobs stated that we will not be able to tether the iPhone and the iPad. Meanwhile, all over the Internet, people are tethering their other smartphones to their iPad or jailbreaking their iPhones to allow it. Like others have pointed out, who wants to pay for multiple data plans? It made me wonder if this could be a tipping point for personal hotspot devices. (and how I ended up here) Buy a $60 data plan and share it between your iPhone, iPad and netbook. Cancel all other data plans. And once you’re already carrying a mifi around, what to stop you from cancelling voice (or buying an iTouch instead)and just using Skype?

Then again, it could be a tipping point for cell phone carriers and Apple, making them scramble to offer better deals (and allow tethering) to prevent the cancellations.

Paolo

I think carriers have a lot to do with it. I got a mifi on the day it launched (two actually). However, a couple months ago I was in the Verizon store getting a netbook and waiting while (I assume) the guy on the other side of the counter clicked next a bunch of times to setup windows. While I was waiting an older couple came in for phones (they were retiring, buying an RV and going on the road – yes I was there that long). They started asking about mobile broadband and for the entire conversation the guy only mentioned USB cards. The MiFi never came up – at least until I butted in and mentioned – which the card would be perfect for – plugged into an RV with multiple devices connecting. Had the salesperson had his way they would have walked away with a last gen product that didn’t really suit their needs.

Lloyd

I love gadgets but why buy a mobile hotspotI when I can tether when I can’t find a hotspot? The one data plan on my cell meets my needs just fine.

My friends are going with those unlimited everything plans which serve their needs just fine. So, the mobile hotspot is being seen as overkill, it’s priced like a need but it’s more of a want.

Button line is yes I could integrate it into my lifestyle but everything is working just fine as is.

Alain (borax99)

Some of us in the corporate world are “stuck” with the phone our company issues us – so smartphones and tethering are hardly an option for everyone. I’m sticking with my original thought, that not enough people know about these “new” devices and their capabilities…

Scott M

I think one thing that adds to the decrease in “personal hotspot” sales is the fact that a lot of smartphones can do the same thing in one way or another –
1. a lot of smartphones can be tethered to a pc to provide network access – I do this often.
2. At least for windows mobile smartphones, you can also buy an app for $30 that turns your phone into a mobile hotspot/router.

personally, I would not want to have a data plan on my phone, and a separate data plan for a mifi or another device, when they can all share one. It just gets too expensive.

Allan Jones

Despite have a ‘personal wi-fi hotspot’, I find it’s useful sometimes to be able to plug a dongle straight into the computer.

If I’m on my own, in a new place, and maybe just passing through, putting the dongle straight into the computer gives me a good indication of the state of the signal.

On the other hand, if I know I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in a place where I know there’s a reasonably good 3G signal, I’m more likely to use a personal wi-fi hotspot. In my case this is the Zoom 4506, into which I can plug any one of several dongles from different operators, and not have to change any settings going from one operator to another.

Dr. Yusuf Al-Kindi

I love gadgets and will sometimes buy a device just to play with it and experience it myself. Sometimes I will buy a device which I do not need, just to try it out. I considered getting one of these personal hotspot devices, but decided against it because:
1) the data plans have limits
2) it is another device to carry around
3) WiFi is avaibale at most of my destinations, such as my office, home, friends’ homes, Starbucks, hotels, many restuarants, my favorite cigar bar and the library

It was sort of make sense if I bought a WiFi phone for Skype, but, I have a cell phone which works fine. The personal WiFi device does not solve any particular problem. What it does do well is done better in other ways. Any condition or context in which it could be used, there is a better way to get the task done, such as simply getting an aircard type device with USB for my laptop.

If I was the marketing director for this sort of device, I would experiment by offering a flat rate, unlimit plan in some test market, and I would hype the WiFi feature of cell phones. Still, it makes for an additional device, when convergence is better.

bjtheone

I think that it is more an issue of the increase in the smartphone market. The same consumers that would be interested in a MiFi like device would be interested in smartphones and most can tether. If you have a GSM/3G based smartphone you can tether and still get phone calls.

A dedicated solution may be needed for really heavy users, but for lighter use, tethering with a smartphone is a very viable solution and paying $30 for 6 Gb of data for the phone and getting free tethering (inside the same 6 Gb cap) is way better than paying an additional $30-60 and having to carry a second device.

I think that smartphones will kill off the dedicated MiFi device. I certainly use the phone for remote data access for my netbook, if there is no WiFi handy.

Sunnyb

I agree with this. I suspect that if you look at sales figures for USB dongles, they have decreased as well in the last year. There are simply more and better devices now that have integrated 3G and bluetooth. So it’s not a bad reflection of MiFi and similar devices, it’s the reverse effect of advances in integrated 3G devices.

gadgetmerc

I didn’t know there was much of a market in 2008. Let alone enough of a market where it can lose 28%. But I think its important to note they lost %28 revenue not percent of devices sold. The prices are now more customer friendly now so that might be hurting their margin. It would be nice to see the full report to see what the sales numbers are, but its a subscription required report. If anyone has access to it, could you post the sales numbers for 3g routers?

BBusyB

I’ll say it seem so be due to a couple of things

1) lack of knowledge, though not so much of the consumer but more so of the Sales staff. If the sales staff don’t know much about it of the advantages of a Hotspot vs a Usb Dongle then ther not going to be able to upsell the consumer to the device.

2) Price – The Price of these hotspots is usually more expensive then simpler USB dongles which are usually chep or free when getting a contract. In comparison most Subs require you to pay something even a token amount for the Hotspot.
In the Uk, Three which sells the Huwia Version of the Mifi on Pay as you go charges £70 for the hotspot alone while a USB modem can be had for £10-20. Convincing the user to spend the additional £50 ($75) is something the sales people have to do, and if they don’t know their stuff or don’t have time it does not work.

Overall, IMHO its going to take a little while for the knowledge to Build, and for such devices to really invade the public consciousness. We all as geek’s can quickly grasp the significance of the device as we have multiple devices and upgrade on a regular basis.

A more normal consumer who may only have one computer and may or may not have a smart phone would question the utility of spending more initially for something where they can’t see the utility.

Once more and more people see others using these hotspots around, and see how handy they can be, they’ll consider them when getting a contract or upgrading. But that takes time.

Scott Curtner

You nailed it! Today, business and retail consumers are barely starting to understand the value proposition of cellular/Wi-Fi routers, like MiFi. I see this hitting a tipping point where adoption will increase in 2011, then accelerate as 4G options enter more markets. Think of the retail business uses for MiFi that are untapped: restaurants, coffee shops, and any business with a lobby area. The thing is… These people don’t know about this low cost option to provide free Wi-Fi to their patrons. In time, they will learn, and 4G will increase speed from tolerable to enjoyable ;-)

Stuart

How many GSM carriers in the USA are offering these mobile hotspots? The mighty SIM could easily be swapped out among various devices but that goes against AT&T’s plan. They could even offer a version of it with the microSIM at the same rate and terms as the iPad data plan but we know they won’t do that either. Many GSM mobile phones have this capability as an easy to add app so why carry another device?

Eddie W

I’m waffling now. I carry around a MiFi with Verizon, an iPhone, and a Macbook Pro 13″. I ordered an iPad with 3G to carry with me so I don’t have to lug around my Macbook anymore — it can stay home on the desk. BUT that means I don’t really need to MiFi anymore since I can get 3G from both the iPhone and the iPad (and for $30 less per month to boot). My hesitation (waffle, waffle) is that if I need to bring the Macbook along, there’s no network connection without the MiFi. I just read somewhere today, though, about someone who is using the iPad to connect to the Mac back at home to do work. That may just work for me as well, and I can cancel the MiFi and fire up the iPad 3G when it arrives. I’ll have to test this when I get my iPad….. Decisions, decisions!!

Alain (borax99)

I jumped out of my seat when I saw that Rogers (finally) introduced the MiFi 2372. If people aren’t buying, I’m thinking either (a) they simply don’t know about these devices (I have yet to see a single ad for one here in Canada) or (b) they stick to just one mobile device – after all, a wireless router only becomes cost-effective when you share the connection !

Chris

I dig my Verizon Mifi because I never have to plug anything into my computer. I just reach into my bag and turn it on and I’m connected.

Another cool/uncool thing is that it helps deal with ATT’s poor service in San Fran. Sometimes I’ll connect via Mifi and get a flood of emails that have been waiting on a server… and now with Toktumi’s Line2, I can make calls that sound better than ATT’s.

Chris

I dig my Verizon Mifi because I never have to plug anything into my computer. I just reach into my bag and turn it on and I’m connected.

Another cool/uncool thing is that it helps deal with ATT’s poor service in San Fran. Sometimes I’ll connect via Mifi and get a flood of emails that have been waiting on a server… and now with Toktumi’s Line2, I can make calls that sound better than ATTs.

Dustin

Mobile hotspots are awesome. I have been using the sprint MiFi from day one. It is great for my traveling but that is about it. When I moved about 6 months ago I used the sprint mifi for a bout a week while I was waiting for the cable company to connect me. After about 3 days of just me and my wife using it we were over the limit. 3G can never replace a wired connection because of the 5GB bandwidth limit. Now with sprints 4g there is no limit and I believe that when wimax becomes more wide spread we may see this trend turn around.

gbp

Kevin, good post.
There are few important reasons on why these little hotspots are failing to sell. First these Mifi’s are expensive compared to a phone hack. Second, the commitment of another two year contract with the carrier. Third is the data usage restriction of 5 Gb / month.
Verizon started giving the hotspot free on the Palm pre via an app making these obsolete for majority of the consumers. However the from the business community perspective ,these are invaluable gadgets for folks who are on the go.

The carriers can improve the sales of these if they can give them for free and shrink the contract to two to three months.

Kevin C. Tofel

All valid points.

Two thoughts on the contract commitment. 1: I’m on a month to month plan with my MiFi because I had already used a 3G USB dongle for 2 years prior. Once the contract was up and I was on month-to-month service, I bought a used MiFi and swapped it on my account. Yes, I still pay the $60 a month, but I have no contract commitment, nor ETF if say 4G hits my area. 2. Consumers could (but likely won’t) pay full price for a MiFi device and be contract free like I am. Not a great option, but worth a mention.

Virtuous

Kevin,

I did a similar thing. After my broadband stick contract expired I bought a Verizon MiFi from Amazon sans contract. To stop paying twice for mobile broadband I switched my AT&T SIM from my iPhone to my old Nokia N-Gage QD. Turning my iPhone into an iPod Touch allowed me to remove the $30/month iPhone data plan from my account. Paying Verizon $60/month permits me to use my MiFi with any WiFi-enabled device, not just laptops.

gbp

Kevin, Can you break the month to month plan, wait for couple of months and activate it back to a month to month plan ?

tom

if these were offered on prepay plans i believe they would be extremely popular. there are simply not a lot of option to get broadband(wired or wireless) without a contract.

tom

consumers look at these and than compare it to tethering with an existing smartphone. looked at that way these seem like a terrible deal. pay $60+ a month for a separate device or enable wifi tethering on the phone you already own for free or the cost of the enabling app.

for these mifi devices to take off they would need to be totally unlimited(not capped @ 5GB) and marketed as DSL/Cable replacements.

Kevin C. Tofel

Great point, Tom, but not every smartphone or carrier supports tethering (sadly!), so it’s not an option for everyone. Additionally, on CDMA devices, tethering ties up the phone — if a call comes in, the data stream will stop, so not an ideal situation.

I agree with you on the caps though — if those were removed or lifted, it could help sales.

Luscious

My decision to not buy the MiFi, even though I was interested, rested on a few key factors:

  1. Tethering via bluetooth is standard on my TP2
  2. $20 is cheaper than $60 for the same data
  3. Phone data plan has no cap – truly unlimited use
  4. 4500mAh battery allows all-day wireless tethering
  5. No need to carry/charge a third device

Now, instead of 3G built-in, or even wifi, all I look for in any netbook/notebook I use is bluetooth (common enough) and connect wirelessly. Problem solved. And I don’t need to hunt for a hotspot either.

Where the Mifi really shines is when it comes to sharing that connection – and that’s exactly where the restrictive 5GB cap kills it. T-Mobile in Europe offers broadband plans at 7GB and 14GB and does not charge if you go over, but merely throttles your speed. It’s also far cheaper, costing about $35 for the 14GB plan.

I know I’ve said this before, but I really think the suits here in the US need to take their horse blinkers off. Unlimited 3G may be impossible to provide for every device, but offering a 14GB plan for the MiFi has to be doable. Either that, or expand 4G into major markets faster.

Curtis

@Kevin,

I know unequivocally that the carriers are promoting personal hotspots. We feature personal hotspots prominently in partnership as an authorized distributor with personal hotspots that are free and subsidized on BroadbandLaptops.com:

http://deals.broadbandlaptops.com

The key problem with hotspot sales are the data caps on the plans. The top 4 carriers offer plans with 250MB caps for $30 per month. Using a personal hotspot with multiple users will blow past this limits quite easily. This fact is putting downward pressure on the sales of personal hotspots.

My $.02,

Best.

Kevin C. Tofel

Curtis, no argument that the plan caps are an issue, but I don’t think the 250 MB plan at $30 a month is indicative of that. All four carriers in the U.S. also offer a 5 GB plan for $60 a month, which is far more reasonable from a per MB viewpoint. And Sprint includes unlimited 4G with their $60 plan for 3G.

I’m also not sold that these plans are intended for multiple users as you say. One user with multiple devices is primarily the intent, although a customer could obviously share the connection with other users.

Definitely the caps can hurt sales, but I don’t think it’s the 250 MB cap that’s doing it.

Curtis

@Kevin,

You’re points are taken, but I think you are still missing my key point. Most consumers who’d buy a personal hotspot likely have wired broadband at home, as well as a cellular plan for their phone. Hence, a mobile broadband plan is incremental, which means the $30 dollar per month plan is significantly more valuable than the $60 per month plan. This is further magnified by the vast network of free WiFi that we have here in the United States.

Bottom line, you questioned the carrier commitment to personal hotspots and it seems clear to me that this assertion is incorrect. Personal hotspots, and mobile broadband plans in general provide incremental user value, as such the data plans need to be priced incrementally from the low end of pricing and usage. This starts with prepaid data plans, followed by lower priced data contracts with reasonable usage limits. It is great that you pay $60 on a month to month basis, but recognize that you’ve got a “ferrari” of a data plan, and most people simply want a “chevy” of a data plan that’s effective.

I hope I made my key point clearer.

All the best.

Nicholas

I agree with Curtis. You don’t make consumers think, or they go away. Monitor usage? Gone.

If they want wide-spread adoption, an iPad like pricing level is necessary. Do you not think that Steve had that conversation with AT&T? Those service providers that do not have such conversations will be unsuccessful.

Kevin C. Tofel

Curtis, thanks for the second reply as it better illustrates your point. I agree that a personal hotspot is an incremental purchase, but I guess I look at it slightly differently. Why? Because it’s not incremental for one single device like a USB dongle, for example. But I totally get your point.

It would be interesting to see what the sales ratio is for the two plans — the 250 MB plan vs the 5 GB plan for 2x the price. I’d love to get my hands on those numbers, but I’m sure that will never happen. ;)

Nicholas

My personal preference is for fewer devices. I believe that the iPad has the correct approach — a monthly fee without contract. Perhaps Apple will add such services to devices like the Air. That would be nice!

But, I am in the market for either a MyFi like product or an iPad that I could transfer files to and email from anywhere. Both go with me, but one simply requires more thought and an approach to being online in a working mode. Such mobile products are great for technology aficionados. But, I disagree with the assessment and slot MiFi-like products with mobile internet cards, another area that never took off per se.

A year ago, I would have bought it…

Chris Meadows

On the other hand, I think I would rather like a MiFi-like product. To be able to hook up my iPod Touch, iPad, laptop, and whatever other wifi-able devices I might have on my person at once, wherever I am? That would be pretty awesome.

What I’d really like would be Clearwire mobile broadband, which would let me do the same thing without monthly data caps. But they’re not in my area yet. :(

Nicholas

I do not disagree, simply am stating that I am tired of so many devices. My interest is in the services rather than the device per see.

I have not had a land line since 2000 and in that time survived on data cards of various forms. I MiFi like product should be exactly what I want. I should be the target market. And yet, I am not.

So, my assessment matches the numbers in the article rather than the opinion. Why do I want an iPad with data rather than a MiFi? Or, better yet a Mac tablet with embedded cellular. Personally, I would rather have the device connected.

Jason Harris

Kevin,

Great perspective…yes I think further education is needed for folks to just know what personal mobile hotspots are all about. MiFi’s are great..and also Cradlepoint devices do the same thing.

Whenever I have my personal hotspot going, people always intrigued by it, so I know interest exists…it’s just a matter of framing it in an approachable way for mainstream customers.

-Jason

Chris Meadows

Huh? If they were introduced in 2009, how could their sales fall from the previous year? There wouldn’t have been any SOLD the previous year.

Kevin C. Tofel

Chris, the Novatel product was introduced in December of 2008, but other wireless portable routers existed prior to that. I’m thinking of those by Cradlepoint, for example, which take a 3G USB dongle and create a Wi-Fi hotspot for it.

Comments are closed.