Back in February 2009 I wrote about how Atheros’ new chip made it possible for a phone to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot. A couple of months later, David Pogue wrote in the New York Times about a standalone device to do the same thing, the Novatel MiFi 2200. The MiFi is a Wi-Fi access point with a direct connection to the Internet over a cellular data channel. So you can have “a personal Wi-Fi bubble, a private hot spot, that follows you everywhere you go.”
The type of technology that Atheros announced at the beginning of 2009 was put on a standards track at the end of 2009; the “Wi-Fi Direct” standard was launched in October 2010. So far about 25 products have been certified. Two phones have already been announced with Wi-Fi Direct built-in: the Samsung Galaxy S and the LG Optimus Black.
Everybody has a cell phone, so if a cell phone can act as a MiFi, why do you need a MiFi? It’s another by-product of the dysfunctional billing model of the mobile network operators. If they simply bit the bullet and charged à la carte by the gigabyte, they would be happy to encourage you to use as many devices as possible through your phone.
WiFi Direct may force a change in the way that network operators bill. It is such a compelling benefit to consumers, and so trivial to implement for the phone makers, that the mobile network operators may not be able to hold it back.
So if this capability proliferates into all cell phones, we will be able to use Wi-Fi-only tablets and laptops wherever we are. This seems to be bad news for Novatel’s MiFi and for cellular modems in laptops. Which leads to another twist: Qualcomm’s Gobi is by far the leading cellular modem for laptops, and Qualcomm just announced that it is acquiring Atheros.