CLEAR 4G Mobile Service: Convenience at a Price

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

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