True report: AT&T just doubled mobile data prices

(Updated 6/3) As I’m sure you’ve read all over today, AT&T announced major changes to its wireless data plans. But, I think because AT&T’s iPhone plan differed from other plans it offered, the reporting of these changes has been a little wacky. AT&T may have eliminated its “unlimited” data plan for the iPhone but it did not have unlimited plans for other devices. Those with non-iPhone devices and phones faced a cap of 5 gigabytes a month, similar to limits imposed by Sprint and Verizon on virtually all of their customers.

Under the new plan, which applies to the iPhone and all other AT&T phones, the maximum offering is 2 gigabytes for $25 a month with $10 charged for each extra gigabyte of data. Compared to the typical 5 GB offering, the price would be $25 plus $30 or $55 a month. iPad customers really get the shaft, as they were getting 5 GB per month for $30 and now that much data is $55.

The other option is $15 for 200 megabytes with $15 charged for each additional 200 MB. I checked my iPhone data usage over the past six months and darn it if the average wasn’t 221 MB. Right back to $30 a month. Hmm.

Among other implication for heavy data users or people with both an iPhone and an iPad, the strategy of Internet smarty Rex Hammock to pair a mobile wifi hot spot like Sprint’s Overdrive with other portable devices looks a little smarter.

One of the few sharp analysis pieces I read on today’s move was Dan Frommer’s observation: AT&T Just Put A Bullet In Mobile TV. I suspect that the future of mobile broadband-delivered video will be a return to the wireless carrier’s anti-innovation, walled garden strategy. Verizon already offers its V-CAST 10-channel/$15 a month service. AT&T’s less advanced (or maybe just less publicized) service called Mobile TV costs $10/month for a smattering of shows from seven networks.

Just a couple of week ago, the Federal Communications Commission in its annual assessment of wireless phone industry reported a decline in competition due to consolidation. Now we can test the accuracy of that verdict. Will Verizon and Sprint cut back 5 GB plans to 2 GB? Let’s hope not.

Addendum: Speaking the night before the price hike was announced, Apple CEO Steve Jobs cryptically said he expected the problem of congestion on AT&T’s wireless network would get worse before it got better. Maybe he was implying that the new 2 GB limit will only last until AT&T gets its network in order. Fourth generation wireless broadband is already available in some places from Sprint and coming “real soon now” from AT&T and Verizon. Hopefully, data allowances will rise again.

UPDATE: Uber Mac blogger John Gruber offers his own analysis and he is particularly peeved about the new $20 charge for tethering (which lets you use your iPhone as a 3G modem for your laptop). The extra 20 bucks doesn’t come with any extra data — you’re still stuck using up the same 2 gigabytes.

There’s a small blind spot in Gruber’s analysis of the Hammock Mifi/iPad strategy, however. With a 3G iPad, you’re stuck with AT&T’s generally horrific network. With a Mifi, you can get online via Verizon. So the trade-off of longer login time and shorter battery life may be more than offset for many folks who can’t rely on AT&T’s network.

Early impressions and mini-review of Sprint’s 4G Overdrive hotspot

In my continuing quest to keep up with the latest and greatest mobile Internet stuff, I’m trying out the new Sprint 3G/4G Overdrive, pictured above. Made by Sierra Wireless and slightly more portly than first generation mobile hotspots like my Verizon Mifi 2200, the Overdrive retains the same basic yet great feature set of its predecessors. It’s a mobile broadband modem combined with a wifi router. So you can take it almost anywhere, link up to the mobile network and then up to five devices can get online via wifi — laptops, iPhones, Nintendo DS’s, whatever. Sprint is even advertising it as a way to get your iPhone online at 4G speed!

This post isn’t a full-blown review as I’ve just had the Overdrive for a few days. But I can tell you already that the Overdrive provides several improvements over the Mifi and its peers — at least in theory. It can connect not just to 3G wireless broadband but also to Sprint’s newly rolling out and faster 4G service. Sprint says download speeds at 2 to 10 times faster than 3G while upload speeds are up to 3 times faster. The Overdrive also has a built-in GPS sensor that can be accessed via your web browser. And, although it’s much chubbier than the mifi, it has a small screen that displays a variety of useful information.

It costs $99 after rebate and with a 2-year contract. Broadband service is the same price and terms as Verizon — $60/month for 5 GB of 3G service, though 4G service has no usage caps. That’s actually kind of irrelevant for me so far because Sprint hasn’t extended its 4G service to the Boston area yet. It’s promised real soon now, or at least by the end of the year.

It seems like the Overdrive gets a stronger signal in several places where the Verizon Mifi had problems, like the neighborhood around my office in Boston. That could because of the device or the Sprint/Verizon difference. I’m not sure.

Here’s a couple of comparison pictures of the Overdrive and the Mifi:

I am also impressed with the little status display screen on the top of the Overdrive. It shows signal and battery strength, number of connections via wifi, length of online session and amount of data transferred, among other indicators. With the Mifi, you were always left guessing about how much time was left on your battery and whether a poor a connection was due to weak 3G signals or some other reason.

And that’s all I’ve got so far. I’ll post a more in-depth review at some point but if you have any questions, fire away in the comments.

Another reason to love Mifi? No driver software

mifi-1I’ve been using my Verizon Mifi 2200, the portable broadband modem and wifi hot spot, all over the place for the past four months and it’s been doing just what it’s supposed to do. It connects quickly and gets my laptop, iPod Touch or any other kind of net surfing device online. I already raved about it in my review back on May 20 and I’m not going to repeat all that again here.

But I did want to note one more advantage the Mifi has over other portable broadband solutions. Since you don’t have to plug the Mifi into your computer (except when you first activate it), there’s no need for any driver software. As long as your computer or other device has wifi, you can get online. That turned out to be a big plus the other day when I upgraded my Macbook Pro to Snow Leopard aka OS X 10.6. Some folks with standard plug-in mobile broadband products had immediate problems with driver incompatibilities. But not Mifi. It could care less what operating system you run.

A related side-benefit is it’s easier to share the Mifi, too. My wife went on a business trip with her Windows-based work laptop. It would have been a bear to install any new drivers on such a locked down machine. But with Mifi, it doesn’t matter. Cool.

Too many black boxes, too many power cords


Heading off for the holiday weekend, I grabbed a bunch of gadgets and junk to stuff in my bag. Amazon Kindle reader – check. Multiple iPods and headphones for the kids – check. Blackberry – check. New Verizon Mifi to test in the boonies – check. Macbook Pro – check. Canon camera – check. They joined the usual assortment of odds and ends that live in my Crumpler Bag of Considerable Embarrassment (actual name) full time.

Of course, with all those gadgets come the required power cords. What a mess. At least the totally awesome¬† yet horribly named Belkin “Mini Surge Protector with USB” allowed me to forgo most of the bulkier plug-in cords since it can power any gadget using just a USB cord connection. For example, instead of carrying an iPod wall charger, I can just plug in an iPod syncing cable to the Belkin’s powered USB port.

By Monday, the Mifi was out of juice so it was time for a charge. But what’s this? The Mifi can’t use the standard mini-USB to USB connector that works for Blackberries and a few of my other gadgets. It actually has a micro-USB port. What the hey? It’s just like the mini-USB port only — wait for it — smaller. I couldn’t find that cord in the bag so the Internet connection ended early. On such a beautiful day by the shore, no great loss. But can’t the world standardize a bit more? The Kindle and iPods all have their own weird charger connections. I guess it’s too much to hope for everyone to get on the same page to benefit the consumer.

Unpacking it all today, I noticed there’s been a proliferation of little black boxes in my bag of late. Starting from the top left side in the picture below (click through for a bigger photo):

  • a Sony digital recorder
  • a Miquelrius paper notebook
  • a Sandisk Cruzer memory stick sitting on top of the still wicked cool Kensington portable battery pack (mini-USB to power up/any regular USB to power out)
  • a crazy-useful miniature Atech compact flash to USB port reader
  • Sandisk’s handy MobileMate that reads seven kinds of memory cards and goes into a USB port sitting on top of the aforementioned Mifi
  • (Now on the bottom row) An iPod Touch
  • a Blackberry
  • the Belkin power strip
  • the Sprint Novatel cellular modem, soon to be gone


And what did I find smooshed way down in a corner pocket? Why the Mifi’s micro-USB to USB adapter of course. Next time I’ll have to look harder.

For some further good advice about what to carry, Dan Frakes has been writing a fabulous series of columns at MacWorld. The other day he had some good advice on cable selection and Friday he reviewed some miniature gadgets you might want to carry.

Verizon Mifi connects laptops, iPods, whatever to broadband

mifi-1After a couple of days wait, my new mobile hotspot, the Verizon Mifi 2200 made by Novatel, arrived today. Out of the box, the battery needed a charge but once the Mifi had sat plugged into the wall for a bit, it was ready to go. Simple as plugging into my Mac via the included micro mini USB to USB port cord (more on USB power cord confusion, if you’re curious). It appeared on the desktop as a CD with the Verizon VZAccess Manager program available to install. A double click there got that bit installed and running, which was required to activiate the Mifi. After the initial activation, no cords are needed to use the Mifi.

Within seconds, the Mifi was connected to the Internet over Verizon’s cellular EVDO mobile broadband network and, simultaneously, acting as a Wifi hotspot for any Wifi-enabled devices in the area. Sweet.

Mifi worked great connecting my laptop and my iPod Touch. The tiny Mifi runs an encrypted wifi network, so only someone who knows the password (listed on a sticker on its base) can join. There aren’t many buttons — just one that turns the power on and off. It’s also quite tiny and featherweight. In addition to the USB cord, there’s a power adapter and a felt-like carrying case. Very simple.

mifi-jpUpload and download speeds were excellent, as measured by Speakeasy’s speed test. The Mifi downloaded at 2,467 kilobits per second and uploaded at 464 kbps. The download rate easily beat my existing Sprint Novatel U720 modem, which averaged a download speed of 1,186 kbps. The Sprint modem (which connects via a USB port) uploaded at 505 kbps, slightly faster than the Mifi. Neither mobile broadband solution can match my home FIOS connection over 5 GHz Wifi. FIOS hit 6,253 kbps on downloads and uploaded at the astounding rate of 3,657 kbps.

So the bottom line is that the Verizon Mifi 2200 is a great mobile broadband solution for laptops and provides the added benefit of letting all sorts of other devices you may have — from iPods to Nintendo DS’s — get online, too. That’s a gamechanger for me. My iPod Touch becomes so much more valuable on the go now that it’s got its own mobile wifi hotspot to go along.

The one downside, of course, is Verizon’s download cap of 5 gigabytes per month under the $59.99 plan (after that, it’s 5 cents a megabyte – ouch). Sprint has the same deal but it stinks if you’re planning to rely heavily on a Mifi.

Prior Coverage:

Oh Verizon Mifi, why can you not delight like Apple? (5/17/2009)

Sprint USB Modem Smacks Down Verizon (3/27/2007)

Oh Verizon Mifi, why can you not delight like Apple?

mifi_promoOk, say you’re a big technology company and you have a hot new product. You put out a press release enumerating the many amazing features and announcing a release date several weeks hence. Even better, one of the most-read tech columnists on the planet, the New York Times‘ David Pogue, raves about your new product in print, on the web and on television. You are really psyched now. Then it turns out that even though a competitor will be offering the same product for the same basic price, you’ve got a two-week jump on availability.

So when your release day finally hits, what’s your strategy at the hundreds of retail outlets you own all over the county?

Did anybody answer act like any other day and don’t even stock the hot new product? Because that was the answer from Verizon Wireless when I went in to order their new mobile wifi hotspot, the Mifi 2200. “Sorry, we don’t have them in stock today – they’ve got plenty at our warehouse and we can order it for you and send it to your house,” a helpful Verizon clerk tells me. They’ve got plenty in stock but none at any of the stores in the Boston area, he tells me.

That’s fine – it’s fine – but really, is that the best customer service? Is that any way to delight your customers? Just imagine the interest and word of mouth that might be drummed up if they had the Mifi’s in stock and activated them at the store in front of all of the customers on a busy Sunday afternoon. Opportunity lost. When it comes to selling and promoting new tech products, it’s still Apple at the top and everyone else trailing far behind.

p.s. when I actually get my mitts on the new Mifi, which is replacing a Sprint mobile broadband USB stick (the Novatel U720), I’ll post Here’s my full review of the Mifi 2200. Surprise – it’s a rave.

Making the transition to a Blackberry Curve

card-1-2Well, the two-year handcuffs on my Verizon-locked Treo 700p smartphone finally came off and it was time to reevaluate. The biggest downside to the Treo was its miniscule battery life, though its bulky weight was another serious bummer. My company pays for the phone so my replacement choices were fairly limited. Since my wife appears to have substantially greater smartphone satisifaction with her Blackberry than I had with my Treo, that’s the option I was looking for.

It meant switching to AT&T Wireless but I was able to select a fairly modern Blackberry Curve 8310 with a snappy red case. The Curve includes a camera with flash, a robust Bluetooth implementation and the ability to take MicroSD memory cards. It’s also pretty much half the thickness and weight of my old Treo and it works just as well with my office-sanctioned Outlook email account. I’m still getting used to the many new key combinations and short cuts — mentally, it’s much worse than, say, going from Mac to Windows, as I occasionally do.

But – wow – battery life is insanely great. I didn’t have to recharge the Blackberry for over three days. A welcome change from the crummy Treo battery that didn’t even last through a whole day sometimes.

I was also nervous about wireless signal coverage here in the Boston suburbs. Some years ago when I last had an AT&T phone, coverage was spotty and considerably worse than Verizon’s. Happily, I can say that the situation has changed. At least out here west of Beantown, AT&T has improved its wireless coverage to at least reach parity with Verizon in real world usage. Even 3G data coverage is excellent.

One downside is Mac compatibility. Though there’s some software called PocketMac for Blackberry which you can download from the RIMM web site, it’s god awful. Palm compatibility wasn’t great either but better than this.

More reports to come but so far, I’m liking the switch.

Getting Verizon’s Actiontec to play with Airport Express and Remote App

Apple\'s Airport Express with stereo connected(Updated 5/13/2010) With Apple’s new Remote App for the iPhone and iPod Touch, the teeming masses who couldn’t afford hyper-expensive schemes (cough – Sonos – cough) to connect their digital music collections to their stereos suddenly had an alternative. If you load Remote onto your iPod, you can control iTunes on the Mac in your office from the couch in your living room. And it’s pretty full control, choosing what to play by album, artist or play list as well as a simple search function. You can even adjust the volume.

Now, suddenly, Apple’s $99 Airport Express is an incredibly great and desirable little piece of equipment. This mini wireless base station has a stereo out connection. The idea is you keep your music library wherever it is and virtually hook it up over wifi to your stereo system or even just a pair of powered speakers somewhere else in the house. Before now, that wasn’t a great solution because you had get up from where the stereo lived and go back to the computer where the music lived to change songs or select a new play list. Now, your iPod or iPhone can function as a super-smart remote control with all the visuals and you don’t ever have to run back and forth. Couch potato nirvana!

Simple, right? So I loaded the Remote App on my iPod Touch and got an Airport Express. I plugged in the Express and connected it to my stereo with a simple audio cable. Then I pulled up Apple’s Airport Utility program on my laptop and set up the Express and…hmm, not so simple after all.

Seems that Airport Express and the Actiontec wireless router that Verizon makes us use with their otherwise awesome FIOS system don’t play nice together. You can’t actually use the Airport Express as a wifi network extender, my original plan. The Actiontec is already running a wifi network in the house and even sends decent reception down to the stereo closet. But the Express and the Actiontec don’t speak the same language, although they both as only the Apple product supports “Wireless Distribution Standard,” or WDS (UPDATE: I used to think both did but Actiontec now clearly says they do not support WDS). In fact, when I used the Airport Utility to set the Airport Express to “extend a network,” it froze up, couldn’t be reached anymore and I had to unplug it and press the factory reset button. Youch. Don’t try that one at home, kids.

In the end, I had to be a bit klugier than I had hoped. I plugged one of Netgear’s great Powerline HD adapters (which run ethernet over the electrical wiring in your house) into an outlet by the stereo, ran an ethernet cable to the Airport Express and set the Express to run its own wifi network. That means setting the Express to “Create a wireless network” under the “wireless” menu in the Airport Utility. Key detail: the Actiontec router is still in charge of dealing with the Internet and handing out network addresses so the Express also has to be set to “bridge mode” on the connection sharing setting which is under the “Internet” menu in the AIrport Utility (see below).

Setting an airport express to bridge mode

Once I got all that working, I went upstairs to my Mac and in the lower, right-hand corner of iTunes a new selection menu appeared letting me designate where to output the sounds from iTunes. The choices were my computer, the new living room Express or both at the same time. Apple calls this feature AirTunes, I believe. I set iTunes to send music to the Express.

Then on my iPod, in the Remote App’s settings, I selected add a new library. On my Mac, the iPod appeared under devices in iTunes and asked for a four-digit PIN code. Sure enough, the iPod was displaying the code and, once I typed it in, the Remote app was “paired,” or linked to, that iTunes library. You can pair the remote with multiple libraries and choose which to control – just remember to assign your libraries different names under iTunes’ “Shared name” setting. My laptop and desktop Macs had defaulted to the same name in both copies of iTunes. MacWorld has a more detailed run down of using Remote here.

So…after just an hour or so of fiddling, I finally had my amazing set-up set up. I recline on the couch, beverage in hand. I sip and put the drink down. I grab the iPod Touch and meander¬† through my entire music library, including all of the zillions of tracks I bought from the iTunes store that are locked up with the Fairplay DRM. Even the Sonos can’t play Fairplay-protected tracks. I select a track or an album or a play list and it starts to play instantly on my stereo. Even though I’m viewing the music library that sits upstairs on my Mac, it’s much like looking through the local collection on my iPod Touch. I can shift the volume, as well. I pull up Dire Straits album Communique, put down the iPod, pick up my drink and drift off to the fantasy land of tech nirvana where everything works right and all the children are above average.

Yes it’s no use saying that you don’t know nothing
It’s still gonna get you if you don’t do something
Sitting on a fence that’s a dangerous course
Ah, you could even catch a bullet from the peace-keeping force
Even the hero gets a bullet in the chest
Oh yeah, once upon a time in the west

Verizon wants more dough for occasional wireless modeming

Sometimes you want to check your email and there’s no wifi and there’s no signal for your Sprint wireless broadband modem. Stuck? Maybe, but you think, well, gee, my Verizon Treo 700p with an unlimited data plan has EVDO and Bluetooth. Shouldn’t I be able to get online with that?

Start off simple – try pairing the Treo to your Macbook Pro over Bluetooth and using network connect. No luck. Apple’s connection across the Bluetooth can’t actually get the Treo to go online. So you try a USB data cable betwixt the Treo and laptop. Same error.

So you do some research and discover that Verizon requires a program called VZ Access Manager for using a smart phone as a tethered modem. Fine. But for the Mac, the program only supports one smartphone, the Motorola Q. Treo support is Windows only. Nonetheless, download Mac version and try it. Nada.

Ok, boot up Windows XP Pro in VMWare’s Fusion and download Windows version of VZ Access Manager. Program says it can’t install unless Palm Desktop is installed. Install correct version of Palm Desktop for Treo 700p on XP Pro (it’s called version 4.1.4e, if you can believe that). Finally install VZ Access Pro. Hook up Treo with USB data cable and link to VMWare virtual machine. Click “connect” on VZ Access Manager. Oh yeah – we have a connection. Crank up Internet Explorer and learn that the connection is really not going through. It’s blocked until I agree to pay the piper (see below). Oy vey.

Verizon wants more money for wireless modem usage

Making my WordPress site legible on my crummy mobile phone

This blog on a treo screenStuck with my Treo “smart” phone in an airport recently, I decided to navigate over here to my blog via its wimpy browser. The Treo is on Verizon’s 3rd-generation broadband service so even though I have a fair number of pictures on the front page, I figured all would be okay. Nope — the experience was ugly, at best. After burping and hiccuping, the Treo’s browser finally just gave up and said the page was too big to download. Well, that’s no good.

In search of a more mobile-friendly manner to display, I tapped into the rich vein of WordPress plugins. I first stumbled on Alex King’s WP Mobile Edition plugin. But a little tapping around for reviews in Google found some people complaining that King’s plugin killed their search engine rankings by serving a stripped-down mobile version of their sites to the search engines’ indexing robots.

Instead, I opted to install Andy Moore’s WordPress Mobile Plugin. It doesn’t mess with search engines and creates a very stripped down, easily rendered site when it detects a visitor is using a mobile phone browser. And you can choose whether to use a red, blue, green or pink background for your header! You can also choose to treat really advanced mobile browsers, like the iPhone’s Safari, as regular Joe computer visitors and give them the full experience of your blog.

But it’s not quite perfect. On the down side, the free version of the plugin puts ads at the bottom of your mobile site. The unfree version is 25 Pounds, kind of steep for a WordPress plugin. There’s also an annoying bug that prevents the plugin from properly displaying some images when it creates mobile versions of individual posts. Moore explains (in the plugin site’s forums) how to use the WordPress plugin editor to negate two buggy lines of code but, really, shouldn’t the developer just make that fix himself, especially for 25 Pounds?

If you want more options, blogger Speckyboy has a number of other mobile plugins, as well, listed in a blog post a few days ago.