The idea of sharing a single mobile broadband connection between multiple users, via a WiFi router, is not new. Vodafone and Linksys first launched their shared-access router way back in 2005, when you plugged a standard Voda 3G PC-card into what was at the time nicknamed the "Little Box".
But more recently, this philosophy has expanded to sharing USB dongle-based HSDPA connections via WiFi. I've had discussions about this with a number of WiFi equipment vendors for some time, but it's notable that some of the mobile operators are now pushing it as a solution themselves. I'm pretty sure that the standard T's and C's for most mobile broadband services forbid you from sharing connections, but obviously if the router is the operator's own, they can try and use it to enhance "stickiness" - or simply make a margin on the box.
T-Mobile announced its rather space-age-looking product called a "share dock" a couple of weeks back. Its dongle-dock (have I just invented a new term for these?) is only available to its own customers, and is tied in with service plans. Pricing hadn't been finalised when I spoke to them, but the impression was that it would either be given away to encourage customer retention, or bundled (at a cost) with some of its higher-end monthly service plans.
Today, 3 have announced a similar product called the D100 (from Huawei), at £70 with a mobile broadband plan.
I'm assuming that neither of these are intended to work with prepay dongles (it looks like the 3 one is only available with contract plans), but I'm waiting for confirmation.
Given that these boxes are just basic WiFi routers with a USB port and some software, I can't imagine it'll be long before they're given away for pennies.
One absolutely killer application of these things will be for conference and event organisers who are hobbled by stupid group WiFi prices at places like hotels. A couple of years back I actually demo'd this approach myself with the aforementioned Vodafone/Linksys box....
Now, clearly this type of thing will only go further towards making the 3G networks congested. Add to this the ability to run PCs and 3G handsets as WiFi access points in software (eg with Windows Internet Connection Sharing, or JoikuSpot or WalkingHotspot on Symbian), and it's clear that there will soon be many ways to hook multiple users to a single 3G pipe (or WiMAX for that matter). Maybe we'll also get plug-in 3G docks (or USB connectors) for some phones that do the same thing.
And given that there's also an ethernet port on the back of most of these dongle-docks.... if you really wanted to, I guess you could plug a femtocell into one as well. I'm looking forward to the net-neutrality debates we'll have when someone hooks a Vodafone femto up, via a T-Mobile HSPA connection. And if you're Sprint in the US, you could even do "CDMA over HSPA" via AT&T's macro network hooked up to an Airave....