Renting a MiFi hotspot for use abroad just got a little bit easier. This week, XCom Global, the leading provider of international mobile broadband access, announced it has opened an in-person service counter in midtown Manhattan, right near the Grand Central Station train terminal. Located at the offices of Amnet travel services, 286 Madison Avenue (between 40th and 41st street) Suite 1700, the XCom desk will allow customers to pick up international MiFi kits before they travel to any of 195 countries or drop them off upon return.
It's no secret that getting mobile broadband when you travel abroad is a difficult, expensive and frustrating process. U.S. carriers charge as much as $1 per MB when you use data roaming on your phone and, if you're on CDMA networks such as Sprint or Verizon, you need a special world phone to even take advantage of the gouging. For several years, Xcom Global has provided the ultimate solution for U.S. business travelers, renting MiFi units with unlimited 3G service for as little as $14.99 a day.
Though consumers and businesses have always been able to rent and return XCom's MiFis via mail, the new service desk adds an extra level of convenience for New York-based travelers. Similar XCom service desks operate out of the Los Angeles International Airport in Terminal 1F and 2F. If you're not located near the New York or L.A. service desks, XCom will send your rental MiFi directly to your home or business with a prepaid return envelope.
The Difficulty of Buying Broadband on Your Trip
This past February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, we had a chance to put the company's service to the test. XCom Global provided us with three demo MiFi units that we picked up in Spain, though regular customers would have received them before departing on their trips. Because we didn't get our units until the evening of our second day, we spent our first day learning just how difficult it can be to purchase reliable mobile broadband service from local providers on one's own.
Before we left on our trip, we decided that we would purchase local prepaid SIM cards and packed a couple of unlocked GSM-capable phones. After we landed in the Barcelona airport, we looked around for a phone store, but couldn't find one in the airport. After checking in to our hotel, we walked over to a local mall and found a department store selling prepaid SIMs from four different carriers. Staff Writer Sarah Silbert is fluent in Spanish and was able to talk to the clerk and help us select a 9-Euro prepaid plan from the Orange network.
Unfortunately, while we waited, it took our bumbling sales rep nearly three hours to activate our card, after which the Internet still did not work on the phone. The keystone cop-like clerk claimed that the Internet service would "fix itself" within a few hours, but it never did, despite the time and money we had invested.
Testing the Service
XCom Global's MiFi comes in a convenient carrying case, which has a USB cable, a spare battery, an AC adapter with a variety of plug adapters and an instruction booklet. After consulting the instructions, we were up and running with the MiFi and pleasantly surprised to see that the primary battery came fully charged, something XCom told us it provides for all its customers.
Throughout the next four days of our trip, our MiFis proved invaluable in areas where Wi-Fi was unattainable such as restaurants, buses and the convention floor. Even in our hotel rooms, the MiFi was sometimes more reliable than the hotel's own Wi-Fi connection.
Though theoretical tests on Speedtest.net only showed rates in the 1 to 2 Mbps range, in practice, we were able to upload video files with great alacrity. On several occasions, we were able to publish 15o t0 200MB videos to YouTube in around 20 minutes, far better than the 45 minutes to an hour we'd expect from 3G, but not as good as the two to five minute times we got from the speedy connection in the press room.
Because the MiFi can support up to five devices at once, we were able to use it not only on our laptops, but also on our smartphones. So even though we were unable to get a working SIM card for one of our Android handsets, we were able to keep it tethered to the MiFi that sat in our bag and use it to check email and surf the Web as if it were directly connected to 3G.
As indispensable as the XCom Global MiFi was to us, it wasn't perfect. The unit only has enough juice to last about three hours on a charge and, even after we held down the power button, we were never quite sure whether it was powered off or not. On several occasions, we thought the device was off, only to pull it out of our bag and see it was extremely hot, powered on and running out of juice. Our second battery seemed unable to hold a charge, limiting us to just a single charge per day.
The single status light on the Novatel-made unit was extremely confusing, flashing between green, purple, blue and red colors which were hard to interpret despite the very detailed provided instruction manual. We wish the device had some sort of LCD display to tell us what kind of signal it had, how much battery was left and whether it was really on or off.
In Barcelona, we also had the chance to chat with XCom CEO and Seiji Nishimura, who started offering his rental service to Japanese travelers in 2008 and expanded to the U.S. in 2010. In a brief conversation, Nishimura told us that he plans to upgrade his service by the end of 2012.
"We’re going to launch a new LTE MiFi at the end of this year, soon after Novatel releases a new LTE product, because they are just developing LTE products for the the North American market, but the frequency there is different," he told us. "Once we get a new LTE MiFi, we can get SIM cards for LTE connection from each network."
Nishimura said he plans to offer LTE service in five to 10 countries that have available LTE and work with his new MiFi. He explained that his business is based on forming partnerships with local carriers in each of the 195 countries he serves and then including their SIM cards in the MiFis he ships to users.
All told, Nishimura says he has partnerships with more than 50 different carriers that service these different countries and he's always looking to expand his offerings to additional areas. For example, he said he recently added Cambodia as an option.