I have been using a T-Mobile's mobile 4G Hotspot (MF61) for about three months, replacing a similar unit from Virgin Mobile that I have previously written about. The Virgin Mobile unit and network connectivity had started to become increasingly unreliable in terms of both network speed becoming extremely slow (maybe 50 – 100kbs) and even the ability to connect to the internet – sometimes having to make several attempts before getting a connection. When the MiFi unit suddenly decided to reset itself to factory default settings – the prospect of trying to get it connected back to my account had me looking for alternatives. From day one the T-Mobile unit has been five to six times faster than the Virgin Mobile unit and has never had any connectivity issues (when there is cell phone service).
If you asked me a week ago I would have given T-Mobile at least an 8 out of 10. This week I tried to connect to my library's web site and got instead a message that "Web Guard was blocking access".
What is Web Guard?
Web Guard is supposed to be an optional add-on feature that restricts access to web sites that have adult content. of course the T-Mobile salesperson at the Maiden Lane,NYC store neglected to mention that the feature is turned on by default on pre-paid devices or ask me if I would like it disabled. From the T-Mobile web site:
"While the filter is intended to remove such adult-themed Web sites from browse and search results, it does not block user-generated or user-shared content. This filter is not error-free and may over-restrict or under-restrict access from the customer's (or parent's) perspective. The filter is not available on all phones and may not work at certain times and/or in certain locations or block all sites within a particular category. The filter does not work with client server applications (such as the Opera Mini Browser). "
Of course T-Mobile’s definition of adult is questionable, once I started looking – almost every college and university library that I tried was blocked as was my ability to manage web sites GoDaddy was blocked too Strangely enough they didn’t block Facebook or Youtube so their blocking criteria is ttuly bizarre.
Neither T-Mobile online, customer care over the phone nor an in person visit back to the T-Mobile store on Maiden Lane, NYC could get Web guard removed without my providing a lot of personal details that I had no intention of providing T-Mobile – again this is a prepaid device they didnt need any of that information to sell me the device or to setup the account and of course, T-Mobile does not have a great reputation for safe guarding this type of information.
Note: Do not go to their Maiden Lane store unless you have at least an hour to spare as they never have more than 2 people actually working no matter what time of day you go and no concept of having at least one person just do basic sales rather than have 20 minute conferences with every person – whether they are customers or not.
So, while I like the T-Mobile service I don't like the whole creepy Big-Brother-ISP thing. I looked around for some VPN solutions and then for some proxy service approaches and even into setting up my own VPN tunnel but nothing low cost or free that would work with my Xoom was apparent and then I realized that I already had the perfect proxy solution that cost nothing, worked very well and was already installed on my Xoom: "The Opera Mini Web browser". T-Mobile's Web-Guard FAQ (table above) had even stated this in an indirect way when they mentioned this as a client server application.
I had installed the Opera Mini Browser several weeks earlier but it was not my main browser. While the Opera Mini-Browser was fast, the Dolphin HD and Firefox browsers had plugins that I wanted to use. Anyway, I tried a couple of web sites to make sure that Web Guard blocked them and then I tried the sites with Opera and no blocking at all. So, if you are having problems for whatever reason with Web Guard or equivalent software with one of the other ISP's give the Opera browser (Mini or Mobile) a try. While T-Mobile may not be keeping any of the information that passes througn my browser, with Opera as mu primary browsing tool it doesn't matter – I don't have to trust them because they are NOT seeing that content when I use the web. Opera Mini Browser – recommended.
How does Opera work?
From Opera's web site:
"Opera Mini requests web pages through Opera Software's servers, which process and compress them before sending them to the mobile phone, speeding up transfer by two to three times and dramatically reducing the amount of data transferred, chargeable on many mobile phone data plans. The pre-processing increases compatibility with web pages not designed for mobile phones. "
Anyway with the MiFi unit working again the Xoom remains a great tool for commuting I haven't used my Mac book in months. In the next article I'll cover some of the other networking and communication tools that I use on a regular basis.