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Internet On The Go: Mobile WiFi Hotspots Vs. OEM Solutions

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Cadillac WiFi demonstrated in a CTS sedan

Cadillac WiFi demonstrated in a CTS sedan

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So you're planning a trip a cross some non-trivial fraction of the country, but you know you (or your passengers) will need or want to be connected to the Internet along the way. What to do?

Sure, extending the web into the car basically ruins any chance at a Griswold family moment, but it can also greatly increase productivity on a working trip--or enhance your ability to share richer media with friends and family as you go.

Most of the major carmakers now offers some form of mobile WiFi hot spot. Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors--all can get you connected to the web in one form or another. But what to do when you need more than the limited data (typically 1-5GB) offered, less expensive plans ($30-$60 or more per month), or faster than the typically 3G bandwidth offered by the OEMs? Well, you go aftermarket.

There's an even larger number of mobile wifi hotspots on the market, from each of the major cellular carriers--but only a small handful have reliable, widespread 4G LTE coverage. One of those is Verizon, and that's the carrier we put to the test last week during our time on the Monterey Peninsula for the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, using the Jetpack 4G LTE MiFi 4620L.

Our time there also highlights one of the biggest upsides to getting your in-car Internet from a third party: you can still take it with you, even when you can't take your car.

Sure, you don't get the upsides of the various on-demand navigation, POI, and other enhancements enabled by a built-in Internet solution, but you do get exponentially faster speeds, cheaper plans, greater flexibility, and, ultimately, you can replicate almost all of the in-car functions with your phone, tablet, or laptop.

Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE MiFi 4620L

Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE MiFi 4620L

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So how did Verizon's service perform in the hilly, often patchy connectivity of Monterey and its environs? Shockingly well, to be honest. Speeds between 4 mbps (3G) and 15 mbps (4G LTE) downstream, and between 1.5 mbps (3G) and 12 mbps (4G LTE) upstream were observed, with 4G LTE coverage available in most of the places we found ourselves wanting access. Latency wasn't an issue, either: our pings consistently measured in the 80-100 ms range. That's good enough to wage some FPS war, if only just.

Using the unit is simple: just power it on, find the WiFi address with your device, enter the password, and go. You can also use it tethered via USB. The Jetpack recharges (rather quickly) from a supplied wall wart.

So does it work--for work? The Jetpack's 4G coverage is how we brought you many of the photos of our time at the Concours itself, as well as some of the photos from our time driving the M5 and M6 at Laguna Seca. At the track, the Verizon 4G coverage was actually faster than the on-site WiFi connection--and, had we been so inclined, we could have shared it with up to 9 of our friends. Battery life of the palm-sized Jetpack was a bit less than we had hoped, especially when dealing with a half-strength 4G signal, but at worst it managed 2 solid hours of connectivity and web access, even under heavy use and poor signal conditions.

For those of us driving cars that didn't offer mobile Internet in the first place, or simply didn't opt to buy it, our field test proves to us that a mobile hotspot can be a great solution, especially for the working traveler. Unless you're on the road all the time, however, it might be smart to stick with a month-to-month plan; almost all of the carriers offer one. On the other hand, we also tested its use at home

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