Notes on testing Clear's 4G WiMax service
Last month, a new wireless-broadband Internet service called Clear launched in the Washington area, becoming the first serious regionwide competition to broadband sold by incumbent phone and cable companies.
For the past few weeks, I've been trying Clear at home and outside, using a few receivers loaned by the PR agency for Clear's Kirkland, Wash.-based parent company Clearwire. Now that Clearwire is revving up marketing for its service (including a mailing sent to my wife, helpfully labeled "This is not junk mail"), I should have a column reviewing it in print soon. But I thought I'd sum up my findings so far.
(I hope this post doesn't suck all of the suspense out of your newspaper reading.)
The short answer is that Clear, after some initial hiccups, has been an effective substitute for land-based broadband. How do I know? Sometimes I have to look to see which wireless network the desktop upstairs and the laptop downstairs have connected to: the Apple AirPort router relaying the Clear signal, or the Actiontec WiFi router sharing my Fios connection. At least when I've been at either computer, Clear's service--which is based on a technology called WiMax that Sprint uses in its new 4G service--has delivered a consistent connection, without noticeable dropouts or slowdowns.
Were it not for an inability to use my wireless printer (connected to the Fios WiFi) or watch sports at ESPN3.com (not available for Clear users), I might have no idea which service I'm using.
On the other hand, when I've uploaded large files--for example, posting a series of 5-megapixel images--Clear's slower speed was obvious.
To really see the difference, I ran some bandwidth tests.
The Speed Test site routinely clocks my Fios speeds at 15 million bits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 5 Mbps for uploads. In comparison, Clear's $40/month home service as accessed through its $84.99 home modem (which doesn't include WiFi sharing, hence the need for the AirPort) registered average downloads of 4.95 Mbps in four tests on two computers, with uploads averaging just 0.56 Mbps.
Clear advertises "up to 6 Mbps" downloads and "up to 1 Mbps" uploads with its $40 service. A $30 Basic plan cuts
upload download speeds to 1.5 Mbps.
Next, I tried two Clear USB receivers sold for use with laptops in the field. Its $79.99 4G Mobile USB delivered about the same speeds on an older Dell laptop: 4.67 Mbps downloads averaged over three tests, 0.75 Mbps uploads. But Clear's far more expensive 4G+ Mobile USB--$224.99 is a steep price to add 3G mobile-broadband support--did far worse when connected to a Sony laptop, averaging 3.25 Mbps downloads and .88 Mbps uploads in three tests.
One of initial hiccups I mentioned earlier concerned a bizarre pattern of failures in a basic Internet feature, Domain Name Service--what allows your computer to find the exact server hosting a Web site. Over the first few days, Clear's DNS repeatedly stopped working. Switching to a free, third-party service, OpenDNS, fixed the problem--but no home Internet user should have to worry about this in the first place. In more recent use, however, I haven't detected those problems.
The other hiccups happened when I took a laptop with the 4G modem on Metro from Ballston to Vienna. I had hoped to see how the service would work on a moving platform--but the signal dropped so often along the tracks that I couldn't finish more than one or two speed tests. A look at Clear's coverage map, reproduced above, should explain why: Its signal is quite patchy.
Clear advertises unlimited plans, although its Acceptable Usage Policy contains an "Excessive Utilization of Network Resources" clause that allows it to throttle back the bandwidth of intensive users at peak times.
A look through Clear's customer-support forums suggests other potential worries; complaints there cover such issues as problems in Clear's Internet-calling service (a $15 or $20 add-on for home plans) and mysterious slowdowns or dropouts.
Maybe I've been lucky in my testing. You tell me: If you use Clear, how would you rate the service? Post your own review in the comments, and you'll help me write a more accurate one in print.
July 7, 2010; 2:42 PM ET
Categories: Mobile , Telecom
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