THE BLOG
01/07/2010 12:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

CES 2010: Showing How to Put WiFi in Your Camping Tent

This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas kicked off Wednesday night with a keynote address by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.

So far a lot of the buzz has been about 3D television and devices. To cut to the chase on 3D (which isn't the subject of this post), I have to say that after sitting down and looking at a Japanese phone with a 3D screen on it, I was impressed.

The animation cartoons didn't appeal to me but once somebody put a football game on the screen in 3D it blew my mind. I can't wait to check out the big-screen 3D on the floor. Even Ballmer put on some 3D glasses.

I'm on the lookout for three trends--MOBILE, SOCIAL and DEVICE-SHIFTING. I found something interesting in the mobile space tonight--a device to put real high-speed in your pocket and on-the-go. I'll call it a "Portable Hub" for lack of a better term.

Imagine if you had your home Internet speed in your pocket...and you could share it with your friends.

That's what is behind the next generation of wireless devices from the big telecom carriers--some using what's known as the 4G protocol. Let me break it down: you get a device the size of a hockey puck or a deck of cards that you can keep in your bag. The device connects you to the web at in-home speeds and you can share that connection with friends. That's the "portable hub."

The first example of this device that I've seen is Sprint's 4G Overdrive. It gives you 4-6 Mbps download speeds that you can share with up to five people with the Overdrive's Wifi. I don't mention this as a particular endorsement of Sprint or the Overdrive--I'm not technical enough to evaluate either and there is some debate over what really is and isn't a 4G speed. The larger point is that wireless carriers (and I suspect all of them) are looking at portable high-speed hubs with connections that you can share as a new offering for consumers. That is a step forward in MOBILE.

So, how could that change your life? Many people on high speed connections--which I'd be remiss not to mention is still roughly only 63% of Americans--have Wifi networks at home. The step forward is that these devices really make the high-speed Internet more mobile.

In this future, when you're cruising down the highway your kids could be in the backseat on the Internet with a laptop or a handheld game device.

Or you could be a college student taking the device out on the quad for a group study.

Or boy scouts could take one on a camping trip--suddenly you have a WiFi hotspot in the middle of the woods (when within range). I don't recommend the warm glow of a laptop over Smores but I could imagine some cool live-blogging of a special camping trip.

Bloggers and reporters could use it for video-blogging from breaking news events. Live-streaming from the event is made easier.

Other on-the-go applications include streaming movies, video chat or a mobile office for a small business. For example, an architect could take one of these to a construction site or a sales team could share a connection on the road.

You might've already heard of the MiFi, offered by Verizon, Sprint and others, which is similar. Those devices are on 3G networks. These next-gen devices are on 4G networks that are supposed to be as fast as many home Internet speeds--or at least what speeds were in 2009. Your in-home wired Internet connection is, will or probably can be faster due to the laws of physics.

Back in 2000 I attended a Tech Tools training camp for social change activists in the hills above Point Reyes, California. We were camping out in tents and one of the techies wired a satellite Internet connection to a Pringle-can-supported Wifi antenna so we could get Internet access in our tents. That was pretty cool but the latency was terrible--like one email every two minutes. These new devices and their networks will solve that problem. I would've had the coolest tent on the Hill (Electricity was another issue).

I've heard of environmentalists using mobile high speed connections to take video of deforestation or some nasty pollution and use their connection as a way to blow the whistle. A human rights group was distributing video cameras and laptops to indigenous groups in South America as a way they could create their own media to document abuses. On-the-go high speed connections could shave days off the reporting times and save lives.

There is, of course, a price tag for all this (Sprint's is like $99 with a contract and rebate plus a $59 monthly fee). But in some ways as more and more people are DEVICE-SHIFTING this is a way to save money. You don't have to buy a mobile data plan for every employee or every kid in the family or every device. A family or small business could buy one of these and use it for multiple Internet-enabled devices on-the-go--a handheld gaming device, e-reader, laptop, camera, a car or more. The same was true for Wifi routers when they were first introduced.

This is the first generation of these devices--the demo I saw had a hiccup when too many people were using it--but it is a glimpse of the future after the hiccups have been cured and another example of how technology can change our lives--not just in small ways, but in big ways.

P.S. I'd be remiss if I didn't report on the Sprint event I attended where their device was announced. It was Vegas big and included appearances by comedian Frank Caliendo, live-cooking show by Mario Batali and speeches by the CEOs of Sprint, Microsoft and Best Buy. Vegas can still do BIG even in a recession. (In full disclosure, I received a coffee mug as a door prize for my attendance. And I ate their food along with 300 other people.)