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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dongle-docks - sharing 3G via a WiFi router (or a femtocell?)

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....


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

My personal opinion is that those "Dongle-Docks" are a gimmick that add very little overall value. Yet another way for operators to do what they always do; ship boxes.

They still have not gotten their head around shipping software or services. IMHO all that "Dock" does is, in an expensive way, sell "Windows Internet Connection Sharing, or JoikuSpot or WalkingHotspot on Symbian".

First, they need an external powersource, so where would one use it? At home, office, conference room?

Second, Would you take it with you when traveling? I would not. There are many cool applications that do this already. Many years ago, there were already suppliers of "Adhoc Mobile Workgroups". Basically a mesh network of notebooks communicating via their WiFi cards and each acting as a node. So this network did not even have a single point of failure. Brilliant solution in my opinion, but where has it gone?

Can you imagine what this software could do if, for example; 2 of the 8 people had a 3G connection? effectively the bandwith would get shared over 2 3G modules. That is cool! Not a freaking dongle-dock that I can't take with me.

But that's just me.

If we must have a "dongle-dock", let's do it the right way!

Build an ADSL Modem with a 3G Module inside.

This means that you can buy the box in the store, signup and get your sim in the store, take the box home and plug in and presto, you are online (on 3G). Then when ADSL gets provisioned (which at least in Holland still takes some days/weeks) the modem will automatically switch to ADSL.

The advantage is less congestion on 3G networks, increased ARPU (because your selling ADSL) and 100% Uptime guarantee.

What do you think about that?

Anonymous said...

er...the Huawei D100 has a LiP battery in it, probably good for a few hours WiFi love at least.


Anonymous said...


You know that all windows PCs can share an internet connection over WLAN? Take a look in your control panel, and enable sharing of the 3G dongle over an ad-hoc PC-to-PC WLAN.

Voila, you have just created an ad-hoc network without any superfluous hardware. Try that at the next trade show :o)

Anonymous said...

From 3's site:

Why should you share your dongle

* No cost or hassle of a land line
* No set up or installation costs
* Just plug and play
* Wireless router – no wires required

This looks more like a subversive play to drop the landline completely, as opposed to a 'me too' sad joikuspot substitute. Once you remove the need for ADSL by enabling consumer-friendly WiFio3G, it's a very small step for the consumer to think "Why do I need that BT landline at all?". And logically, all your voice calls would then be with...er...3?

This offer looks like a great big pair of copper-cutters in disguise...


Dean Bubley said...

Some good points from all.

I agree about the Windows / Mac connection sharing thing, but it's a pain to configure - and it also means trusting yourself (or employees) with getting the firewall & security settings right. Many people (me included) disable the peer-to-peer WiFi on their PCs.

At least a standalone gizmo doesn't *seem* like exposing your notebook's hard drive as a conduit for everyone else & their viruses.

Edsard - the DSL-with-3G thing is already being used by Vodafone, called the Vodafone Station by Huawei. It uses a dongle rather than a module but that's actually useful - you can detach it & take it with you, rather than needing a 2nd modem in your PC.

Mike - the battery backup is useful. But the idea that this can "replace copper" at a time when mobile operators are looking to exploit copper & fibre broadband for femtocells (or WiFi) data offload doesn't work, apart from a few corner cases (low-traffic users).

3 (and I'm using it to write this)doesn't have the spectrum or macro cell sites to displace more than a small fraction of total ADSL and cable traffic, much less any next-gen access based on fibre.


Anonymous said...

No gimmick for me. My sister has rock solid coverage in her kitchen but none in the rest of her house. With these device she will have perfect wifi throughout her house and no more 3G coverage issues. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...


If you believe that 10% of users generate 90%+ of Internet traffic, 5GB (or 15GB in the case of 3 UK) will be more than adequate for plenty of Internet households - Now this may change with increasing online video consumption but imho most households can make do with a mobile broadband allowance and are prime targets with this product

Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

In Austria 3 offers the D100 for 99 euros, no SIM lock, available without contract, with out 3G stick, no nothing. http://tinyurl.com/55o7hr

Just walk into the store, buy it and use it with any 3G stick (of Huawei) you already have. I've seen them in shops before so they are available on a grand scale.


Dean Bubley said...


I strongly suspect that the pricing (& network dimensioning) on the 5GB-cap typical mobile broadband product is done with the anticipation that actual average usage will be about 500MB.

Your assertion also assumes an even spread of potential users throughout & between cells. However, if you look at how DSL was rolled out exchange-by-exchange, it's clear that users tend to cluster (eg apartment blocks).

There's absolutely no way that mobile broadband can be a massmarket DSL/cable replacement for high-density urban areas. It's also obviously unsuitable for markets with lots of IPTV bundled with broadband.

There's also a whole range of other things that fixed ISPs do better than mobile broadband at the moment - from managing peak traffic, through to better DNS, lower latency for VoIP etc.

I certainly agree that there is a fair % of users who may substitute HSPA for ADSL, but it's not scalable, especially when the next "big thing" (Youtube HD?) hits.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Dean -
"There's absolutely no way that mobile broadband can be a massmarket DSL/cable replacement for high-density urban areas."

Er...never say never eh? I remember the engineers telling me that we'd never be able to spit more than 512 mbps down copper. No way no how. Heh, right!

Dean Bubley said...


There's a big difference between an engineer telling you something can't be done, and a physicist telling you.


Anonymous said...


Heh, not really.