Corporate Tool: Mobile WiFi Hybrids

In the mid-1990's, I was on-site when a bank's data center was caught by a power failure. As is the case with most “interesting” events, the incident exposed a number of shortcomings in the contingency plans. One of these shortcomings was that the data center, located in the upper reaches of the building, lost touch with the IT staff, who were domiciled on a far lower floor of the same building. It did not help the situation that the power failure happened between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM in the morning, trapping several key members of the IT staff in a commuter train from Long Island, just inside one of the railroad tunnels. I later head from one of the staff members that they were close enough to the mouth of the tunnel to see the incoming calls, but did not have enough signal to answer.

However, I digress. While the inability to communicate with staff was an annoyance, the inability to communicate between the onsite staff, the main computer center, and the backup computer center was a serious problem, and unforeseen. After all, this was a company where everyone was issued a mobile phone when they joined the firm. In those days, mobile phones were still a rarity, and I remember noting surprise the large cellophane-wrapped packages of account applications. What happened?

The communications problem was caused by the Private Branch Exchange (PBX) batteries, which were only designed to provide five minutes of power. Needless to say, the firm's PBX was not connected to the Uninterrupted Power System (UPS).

We made do. After the smoke and dust had settled, I observed that as an emergency measure, the computer center should be issued a mobile phone and it should be on permanent charger mounted in the computer room (admittedly in a secure container).

This morning, a device was described by David Pogue of The New York Times that well addresses the need to use the mobile telephone network as a broadband carrier of last resort. In “Wi-Fi to Go, No Cafe Needed”, Mr.  Pogue described the Novatel MiFi 2200, available at modest cost[1] from Verizon.

According to the article, the MiFi is a five-user mobile data network to WiFi (IEEE 802.11) gateway, much like the SOHO firewall/routers that all landline broadband subscribers are well familiar. However, the far side of the MiFi is the Verizon Wireless network, not the familiar landline DSL, cable, or FIOS connection.

The advantages of devices of this class to businesses are manifest. Consider the possibilities:

The article is not clear, but presumably the device can be plugged into a car charger while running, so with the 12VDC version of a power strip, even a family minivan can achieve connectivity enroute to the backup data center. In fact, in any location or circumstances where there cellular signals are accessible, but landline-based broadband is either expensive for short term use (e.g., meetings and conference exhibit areas), or not available in a timely fashion (e.g., power failures, mobile teams), this is an extremely cost effective solution. It is also far easier and less expensive than equipping many people with the additional adapters to allow mobile computers to connect via the wireless phone network.

Used correctly, devices of this class have the potential to dramatically enable tactical IT in much the same way as the advent of wireless telegraphy a century ago revolutionized the command and control of warships at sea. No longer is it impossible to quickly establish secure, real-time communications between groups of mobile assets. Used wisely, these devices are dramatic than their diminutive stature.


[1] $ 100 with a two-year contract; $ 60/month (5 GB/month of transfer), $ 40/month (25 MB/month).


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