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Summary:

The folks at CLEAR (formerly Clearwire) kindly sent me their latest 4G WiMAX modem to try out, so I’ve been testing it here in Seattle and on a weekend train trip to Portland.

The folks at CLEAR (formerly Clearwire) kindly sent me their latest 4G WiMAX modem to try out, so I’ve been testing it here in Seattle and on a weekend train trip to Portland.

The CLEAR 4G+ Mobile USB modem looks like an oversized USB drive, measuring 1.28″ x 3.6″ x 0.48″ and weighing 44 grams. It comes with documentation, a carrying pouch, a USB Y-adapter cable, a mounting bracket, and the CLEAR Connection Manager software, which is currently available only for Windows.

The modem can be plugged directly into a USB port, and since the plug on the modem swivels, can be oriented vertically or horizontally. The Y-adapter was useful in getting the modem out of the way while working, but I didn’t use the mounting bracket. The modem put out a surprising amount of heat almost from the instant it was plugged in.

The CLEAR 4G network worked reasonably well at my office in a residential area of Seattle. According to speedtest.net, I averaged 10-15 Mbps down and 0.5-1.5 Mbps up, although both upload and download speeds varied considerably.

In downtown Portland, however, CLEAR’s 4G network was much slower. I averaged around 3Mbps down and 0.4Mbps up. A friend from Portland tells me that CLEAR’s network was faster when it was first installed, but that speeds have not kept up as it’s become more popular. Seattle’s 4G network is much newer; we’ll have to see how it does as more customers start using it.

The modem is supposed to automatically fall back to 3G when needed. It seemed to do this reasonably well, but it sometimes took 15-20 seconds for the switch to take place. And if the modem lost connection to all networks, I had to click the “connect” button on the software to make it rescan for a connection, then, once the network was found, click again to actually connect. Each of these processes took several seconds. As a result, the CLEAR modem did not work while on a moving train.

I found that the connection speeds were fine for most uses, such as checking email and browsing the web. But connecting remotely to my office computer via Hamachi was very slow. It would do in an emergency, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it on a daily basis.

CLEAR offers 4G service in several cities. The CLEAR 4G+ Mobile USB modem is available for purchase at $225, or may be leased for $6 per month. CLEAR offers a 3G/4G plan at $55 per month with a 2-year contract. This plan includes “unlimited” usage (see the fine print) in 4G coverage areas and a 5GB/month cap in 3G mode. If you don’t need the 3G fallback, a 4G-only plan is available for $45 per month.

If you frequently travel to places in 4G markets where other connections are unavailable, you may find CLEAR’s 4G service to be convenient. But I don’t think that I could use the service to replace my current connection. You’ll want to check your local conditions to see if the CLEAR network in your area is speedy and reliable enough to meet your needs.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): 4G: State of the Union

  1. Is 4G really even a faster technology? I have heard that the 3G technology still has a lot that can be expanded on. Makes you wonder if 4G is just a marketing stunt. But what do I know?

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    1. Charles Hamilton Tuesday, March 30, 2010

      4G definitely has faster specs, but my experiments suggest that your speed will depend on local conditions, and the number of users online at a given time.

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  2. Just FYI, there are now Mac drivers for the Clear service. They’re not out for the 3G/4G hybrid version, but the Connection Manager software works just fine with a Mac.

    I’m using Clear in Portland, and you’re right, the service is patchy on trains, but for me it beats paying for Wi-Fi hotspots at Starbucks et al. (I’m not a power user, though, so your mileage may vary.)

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  3. Charles McPhate Friday, April 2, 2010

    One of my neighbors switched to CLEAR last fall and has had similar experiences to yours. We live in a downtown Chicago high-rise, and bandwidth has slowed significantly as the service has become more popular. But it still works great outside the downtown area.

    This is his review of the service in Chicago: http://www.chicagocarless.com/2010/02/09/wimax-woes-in-high-rise-chicago/

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  4. I’ve blogged about a very similar CLEAR Wimax slowdown experience here in Chicago. I live in a downtown high-rise in a neighborhood that CLEAR has festooned with ads about super-speedy service. But from my 38th-floor apartment, my service barely goes above 1.5 Mbps. (See http://www.chicagocarless.com/2010/02/09/wimax-woes-in-high-rise-chicago/)

    That’s down from a high of 4.0 Mbps when I signed up for CLEAR in November. Incredibly, CLEAR told me they blame their own customers for the slowdown. Translation–they don’t have enough towers/antennas in Chicago for all the people who want to use the service. We also have a lot of spotty coverage at ground level along the north-side lakefront, which are among our town’s most built-up areas.

    Service is great a couple of miles back from the lakefront or far outside of downtown, however. That doesn’t sound like great planning on CLEAR’s part to me. It’s as if Chicago’s nature as a dense city with areas of high-rise residences and businesses never got taken into account. And in five months, it hasn’t much been fixed, either.

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  5. Clear is building a second data center in Chicago late summer/early fall. That should help speed there.

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  6. [...] this is significantly slower than the cable connection I usually use (and is also slower than the CLEAR 4G modem I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I was able to connect to a remote computer using Hamachi and do basic work with minimal delays. I [...]

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  7. [...] this is significantly slower than the cable connection I usually use (and is also slower than the CLEAR 4G modem I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I was able to connect to a remote computer using Hamachi and do basic work with minimal delays. I [...]

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  8. A data center has nothing to do with speed. The important factor is getting bandwidth to the towers, you don’t need a data center to do that. Wireless is just another medium of connectivity to the Internet. Clear is not going to host the ‘Internet’ in it’s data center, or for that matter any of it’s content.

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  9. [...] this is significantly slower than the cable connection I usually use (and is also slower than the CLEAR 4G modem I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I was able to connect to a remote computer using Hamachi and do basic work with minimal delays. I [...]

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