Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Back on the grid with Clearwire

At work our network is heavily filtered. To add to that I have been bounced from the guest network. This explains why I have been "off the grid" so much in the last six months. It has been like having an arm permanently tied behind my back. The river of information that normally flows to me through my Social Media connections had dwindled to the occasional dribble.

With the imminent launch of the iPhone 4 I had held off finding an alternative solution and had been muddling through by using a Blackberry Storm via Bluetooth and Verizon's network in order to get online to Social Media and Video sites. The connection kept dropping out and throughput wasn't great.

Living in Baltimore I had seen that Xohm, the now defunct Sprint-Nextel 4G network had launched a year ago as a test zone in our area. Sprint passed Xohm off to Clearwire and the new sign ups in Baltimore were suspended. All that changed last week. Now Clearwire is signing up people in Baltimore and Washington DC again.

So why not wait for the iPhone 4? 

That's simple - AT&T changed the rules. In their quest to suck more money out of their under performing network AT&T changed the unlimited (really a 5GB/month plan) to a 200MB or 2GB per month plan. I fail to see how it will save their network. It is obviously more a ploy to dip deeper in  to subscriber's pockets before they lose their Exclusivity deal on the wonder phone (see my earlier post). 

With AT&T changing the rules and on top of turning a 5GB plan in to a 2GB plan, they are also releasing (finally) the tethering option. This will cost an extra $20/month but you get no extra download capacity for your $20/month. Instead, you are paying extra for the privilege of using up your smaller data plan more quickly.

So AT&T - I don't want your tethering plan. I may move to the iPhone 4 but I don't want to loose the data plan I have been on for the past 3 years. 

So Hello Clearwire!  Once I found they were opening up to new subscribers I purchased a 4G USB Modem for my Mac. There is no data cap on the plan. Unlimited is unlimited. What's more for $40/month I have 6MB download and 1MB upload with no cap on usage. This is all on a month-to-month plan with no contract and no extortionate Early Termination Fee. Take that AT&T.

I ordered the modem yesterday and within 24 hours it was delivered in to my hands. The installation on the Mac is trivial. A flash drive contains the installation software (for Mac and Windows). Once the Connection Manager software was installed I updated my Network Preferences (The installation had set everything up) and I hit connect. I was prompted to Fill in a couple of account screens at within a couple of minutes I was happily surfing around the Internet at speeds that put the Verizon CDMA network to shame. In fact it even seemed faster than my company network!

When I got home I ran a speed test to compare Clearwire to Verizon FIOS. Yes, FIOS is faster but it is also more expensive (about 50% more per month)
Here are the snapshots from the speed test:

All in all, it was a trouble free sign up process and an absolutely painless installation. The resulting browsing experience is great. Probably faster than DSL and I was only getting about 75% signal strength. 

The downside is that 4G WiMax from Clearwire is limited to a small, but growing number of markets. If you have coverage in your city and spend most of your time out and about in that city then it is an excellent and cost effective solution. If you travel more widely the 4G modem solution is not going to be what you want. If I find a need to travel I will probably upgrade to the 4G+ modem that offers 4G WiMax and 3G coverage via Sprint. This would add $15/month to the service cost - which is still competitive. While on 3G you would have a 5GB bandwidth cap each month. 

The combined 4G/3G solution is more cost effective than the major carriers offer and does not require a contract. The only downside is that drivers for Mac OS X are not currently available for the  4G/3G modem. Let's hoping that is fixed soon, otherwise Mac OS X users would need to get a portable cradlepoint wireless router (also sold as the ClearSpot).

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