28 Comments

Summary:

I spent the last few weeks testing a dual mode WiMAX modem from Sprint. The verdict: It’s not strong enough to be a wireline replacement, but if I didn’t have a contract on Verizon I’d ditch my MiFi and use WiMAX as my primary data connection.

I spent the last few weeks roaming around Austin with a dual-mode WiMAX modem from Sprint in order to see how well it works here. The verdict: It’s not strong enough to be a wireline replacement, but if I didn’t have a contract to fulfill on Verizon I’d ditch my MiFi and pick up the Overdrive 4G/3G personal hotspot and use that as my primary data connection.

Sadly, the truly fast 4G service is only available in a limited area and the upload speeds are only so-so, which means I’m not going to go out of my way to make WiMAX happen for me. But anyone who doesn’t already have a data card should take a hard look at it. Data service from Sprint costs $59.99 a month and the personal hotspot will set you back $349 for the device without a contract or $99 with one. The cost of data service and the contract price on the device is comparable to that of the MiFi.

However, my overall experience  with WiMAX bums me out because I had high hopes for the 4G wireless service as a way to fill in some of the broadband black holes in town where cable or DSL doesn’t reach. Unfortunately, WiMAX doesn’t seem to reach those areas, either.

WiMAX speeds downtown

The best speeds I noted were 4 Mbps down and never more than 500 kbps up. I was really disappointed with the upload speeds until I spoke with someone from Clearwire, who said that upload speeds are limited to 1 Mbps in order to allocate more downlink capacity, which most people value over the upload speeds.

Capability-wise, I was able watch Hulu, stream music and make decent VoIP calls. Skype video was iffy, but I even have issues with that on my cable modem at home, so I’m not prepared to draw too many conclusions from just one test. Surfing the web was no problem — in fact in some areas where WiMAX coverage was strongest, it was just like surfing at home.

WiMAX at Zilker Park

Verizon EVDO at Zilker Park

However, in many areas of town I had a hard time getting a 4G signal at all, such as when I was being driven down MoPac and around the 360 in the western part of town. And the modem I was testing had a hard time transitioning between 3G and 4G signals, so VoIP in a moving car isn’t really possible. Some of this may be Austin’s hilly geography and part of it may be that the network in Austin, according to Sprint spokesman John Taylor, is still not 100 percent built out (he didn’t know how long that would take). In other areas, such as around Zilker Park and in the West Lake Hills, I got speeds of 2.5 Mbps down and 220 kbps up. The University of Texas campus isn’t covered by WiMAX at all since the university has its own Wi-Fi network.

Taylor told me the thought was that students getting Wi-Fi for free wouldn’t pay for coverage, so Clearwire didn’t put up the towers. Which indicates that in the rush to keep its first-mover advantage over the coming Long Term Evolution networks being deployed by the large carriers, Clearwire is cutting some corners. Depending on how well and where Verizon implements LTE by the end of this year, this could come back to hurt Clearwire and Sprint.

So overall, I think if you live in an area where the coverage is strong, WiMAX is a decent alternative to basic DSL or non-DOCSIS 3.0 cable service. If you don’t have access to either of those, even getting the 3-4 Mbps down speeds via WiMAX is a no-brainer. As a mobile broadband user, however, having a dual-mode device is a nice-to-have option, but isn’t really something I’d go out of my way for, especially since the area where the 4G service is significantly better than my current EVDO modem is small. What the WiMAX test really does is whet my appetite for a day when 4G is more ubiquitous.

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  1. Jim St. Leger Friday, February 5, 2010

    Nice assessment. I have friends in Portland who have dumped their wired broadband for at-home, non-mobile WiMax connections. They’re pretty happy, not the least of which due to changing providers as well.

  2. i wonder if sprint/clearwire speculates that UT campus dwellers would actually be such heavy users that they would be unable to provide acceptable service at a reasonable cost. students in general tend to be very heavy P2P down loaders and bandwidth hogs in general. UT has a tech heavy student base would likely be even more so than average.

    1. I think it is also a marketing decision. How many students (or bill paying parents of students) are going to pay those prices when the campus is covered by wifi for a small fee (think its $240/school year for 20gbs/mo – but there is a charge so it is not completely free)? Not me (one of those parents).

      1. Clear Wimax is:

        $50/month, unlimited usage, for TWO mobile accounts, so sign up with another student and it costs you 25/month, only slightly more than wifi.

        Strange decision by Clear marketing…

      2. with all the streaming and downloading popular among youth in general ans student in particular i would bet that 20 GB is not enough for many students. i also wold take a guess that the university has some filtering in place on the wifi network. students would be some of the most likely to not want any restriction, blocked sites, etc.

        but sprint/clearwire probably do not want this type of usage(large file transfers, illegal content downloads, porn, etc. etc., etc. – all of this is very very popular with college students – perhaps more so than with any other demographic group) any more than the university does.

  3. Not clear in the article if the system is fully built-out or are they beta-testing where they’re at – right now?

    Is there the possibility of tweaks or additions making a difference?

    I ask because we’re sneaking up on a county-run system of similar scope – in my neck of the prairie – and I’ll probably be involved as beta-tester, sooner or later.

    1. Stacey Higginbotham Eideard Friday, February 5, 2010

      They’re in full production mode. I actually waited for a few weeks after the launch to give the network time to improve. It has.

  4. Carl Townsend Friday, February 5, 2010

    I live in Austin as well and have had a similiar experience with the coverage. Clearwire is continuing to add towers every month, but just takes time to expand coverage and fill in the gaps. Just look at all the debate between Verizon & ATT on 3G coverage maps. Once you have it though, you will definently notice a difference in performance relative to 3G.

  5. nexttolastblog Friday, February 5, 2010

    4+mb/s has to be a no-brainer. Thanks for the speedtest.net
    quantification.

  6. We tried Clear wireless at home – we live in the Hill Country near the new AMD campus and Clear didn’t work at all, even though there’s a tower .4 miles from our home. After long phone conversations and a visit from their tech, moving the modems (home and mobile) all over the house, being told that we would have problems because we have double-pane windows, trees, brick exterior and hills – we’re sticking with Time Warner for home Internet. Easy, relaible.

  7. I have Clearwire and absolutely love it. I have even hit 10+ mb/s a few times, but it is ususally half that speed. The mobility that it allows is fantastic.

  8. Stacey,

    While 4Mbps downstream is definitely a great speed, and would completely satisfy me as a mobile user, I can’t help but be disappointed with what WiMAX and 4G are delivering right now. What happened to the 70Mbps over 70Mile ranges that were promised years ago (and we all knew were BS)?

    I know reality can be a pain, and tends to greatly reduce laboratory speeds when in the field, but allow me to offer this link as a comparison:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjrk11sNtbA&

    My friend Samir Madani lives in Stockholm, and tested the live, commercial 4G LTE network there at about 26 Mbps down and 4.8 Mbps up. See for yourself in the clip.

    This Telia Sonera network is about as mature as the Austin Clear network. Samir works for Dovado, which makes WiFi routers with VoIP phone and Ethernet plugs that use cellular as backhaul. He’s not there to fake results for Telia Sonera, but to build a business that depends on good wireless networks.

    Telia Sonera, Verizon, and AT&T are not the same. So of course, there will be different characteristics to their LTE networks. But Telia Sonera is at 2.6GHz and the US LTE launches will be at the FAR better 700MHz. If what we are seeing is truly how well WiMAX measures up to LTE in a 4G battle, it doesn’t look so good for WiMAX.

    I hope there is a better reason, such as that Clear is deliberately throttling performance…although that is not what you were told by Mr. Taylor and the other Clearwire rep with whom you spoke.

    People: What are the best WiMAX performance numbers we’ve seen in a commercial network anywhere in the world? And if higher, what’s holding us back here?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’d love 4Mbps downstream, and would trade in my MyFi for an Overdrive too. But if the US market eventually gets a choice between 4Mbps or 26, I’ve got a hunch which way they’ll go.

    1. Here in ATL, I typically get speeds around 10 to 11 Mbit/s down, and close to 1 Mbit/s up (upload is limited to 1Mbit/s right now). All of this through the usb stick, not sure how fast home modem would be.

      I has been my experience here that it takes a few months for the coverage to stabilize: I get coverage now in places that were slow or dead before.

    2. When LTE is finally launched it will no longer be dealing with Wimax but rather Wimax 2, which has manifested download speeds between 300 Mbs to 1 Gbs in laboritory tests. So those of you that are enamored to ATT and VZ’s spin for choosing LTE I would be a little wary as to the politics surrounding the debate of LTE vs Wimax.

      According to a recent survey there are over 146 countries that have existing Wimax platforms that are expected to cover over 800 million users by the end of 2010. The Wimax supporters and investors include Sprint, Google, Intel, Comcast, Time Warner, Cisco, Samsung, HTC and numerous other bigwigs. Owing to this only a fool would allow himself to be swayed by the hyperbole of Verizon, ATT and those that have a vested interest in building out LTE towers.

      The facts speak for themselves. Wimax 2 is far superior to LTE and are expected to be launched around the same time. Wimax is here and their is nothing to match it, so to compare an existing platform with one that does not exist would be unscientific, hence the argument should be between Wimax 2 (IEEE 802.16m) vs LTE.

      1. Nigel,

        Your reply is a total non-sequitur, and a basic copy/paste of WiMAX Forum marketing collateral. You seem to accuse me of being an ATT/VZW fanboy who is dismissing WiMAX and pushing LTE. Not so, I’m just asking people what their real-world experiences have been. I find that matters more than the powerpoint.

        You say we should be “wary as to the politics surrounding the debate of LTE vs Wimax.” But is it political to discuss real world performance speeds? Seems mostly factual. I think you seem far more “political” about the topic.

        You say “When LTE is finally launched.” Are you being deliberately obtuse? Just political? Didn’t I just mention the commercial network of TeliaSonera?

        I am specifically disinterested in laboratory speeds or theoretical speeds, or prognostications. They often diverge from reality. (Here’s a link to Intel’s Paul Otellini in 2004 promising WiMAX in laptops by 2006: http://bit.ly/cJbBe9 )

        “WiMAX2 at 300Mbps?” More fantastic claims, perhaps true, perhaps not. But if we accept that WiMAX is improving, do you think LTE is standing still?

        Laptop Mag tested Baltimore and Vegas, and got about 5Mbps on Clear, Stacey tested Austin and got pretty much the same. Those are facts. The Youtube video I posted shows that in Stockholm, LTE is testing at 26Mbps.

        Rev pointed out another Clear data point which is much better at 11Mbps. That adds value to the real world discussion. Getting all religious does not.

  9. I use Clear WiMAX at home in Austin and mobile and get usually great speeds.

    Just did a speed test to DFW.speakeasy

    http://tweetphoto.com/10530396

  10. Very nice review of 4G WiMAX! I think with any technology, especially something this new, there are bound to be some hiccups. Where I’m located, I usually get a steady 8Mbps down (sometimes higher than 10Mbps) with the home WiMAX modem, and around 4-6Mbps with the usb modem. I thought UT campus had coverage, interesting; I’ll have to look into that…

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