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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.)

clear_coverage_map_dc_july2010.png

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.

Clear's On-The-Go plan costs $40 a month; adding 3G coverage brings the cost to $55.

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 7, 2010; 2:42 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Telecom  
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Comments

I recently dropped Comcast (and Tivo) in downtown Baltimore in favor of Clear for Internet and streaming and OTA for TV. I haven't really gotten the TV side of things set up yet but the Clear experience has been pretty smooth. I encountered a minor issue with getting redirected back to Clear's activation page the first time I plugged in, but a force refresh broke me out of it. There were also some hiccups with our aging wifi router - neither of our iPod Touches could access any Google property until I dropped my router's MTU from 1500 to 1400 based on suggestions in Clear's forums. Outside of that, I haven't gotten around to any speed tests yet, but we get a solid 5 bars on the modem at all times and the download speed has at least been sufficient for Hulu. I haven't done any uploading but I didn't hear any complaints from my fiance while she was posting photos to Picasa.

Posted by: treads0322 | July 7, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I don't use Clear, but I have a couple of comments.

The download speeds are interesting. As with 3G, Clear's users near each cell are sharing a "pipe." As they get more customers your speeds will go down in the near term (until Clear upgrades technology again, adds cell sites, etc.)

Regarding mobility, I believe Clear is using a WiMAX standard known as IEEE 802.16e which was designed for portability and low-speed mobility, and not high-speed mobility like the 3G standards. So, the 3G guys may have slower data speeds, but they can keep a connection while you are speeding down the road. Clear can't. There is a high-mobility WiMAX standard under development now in IEEE, 802.16m, but it won't be ready for a year or more and I don't know what Clear's plans are for it.

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | July 7, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

"Clear advertises "up to 6 Mbps" downloads and "up to 1 Mbps" uploads with its $40 service. A $30 Basic plan cuts upload speeds to 1.5 Mbps."

You mean cuts download speed to 1.5, no?

Posted by: jslaff | July 7, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

@Bob_Dobbs: According to this post in Clear's tech-support forum (authenticated by the company), they support both 802.16e and 802.16m. I'll have to check with the company on this one.

@jslaff: Right you are. Fixed now. Thanks for the proofreading!

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | July 7, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I see they are doing what AT&T does to me: they say UP TO 6 Mbps. Well, that is like saying that I can leap up to tall buildings with a single bound and stop up to speeding locomotives. The upper bounds of those claims are NOT EVER to be met.

My experience in small town south Texas with the UP TO 6 Mbps download is that it NEVER gets any better than about 5.1 Mbps. I've run hundreds of speed tests over the last two years at random times of day and night with that being the upper bound.

Posted by: RHMathis | July 7, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I tried it in Chicago. I couldn't get good reception in my apartment unless I installed the modem near a window far from my desktop computer. Clear was very helpful and solicitous, even sending me an 802.11g USB receiver. I didn't really want to install a WiFi card or devote a USB port on the machine so I canceled my Clear service. I so wanted to ditch RCN. If I could have gotten good inside reception or moved the home office, it would have been a done deal.

I got good connectivity and throughput using Clear's USB receiver with my laptop on Chicago's elevated trains, by the way.

Posted by: -bwg | July 7, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

I have been a customer since they were using the XOHM technology and it has been a work in progress. However, I have been pretty happy. I reside in the Triad area (Greensboro, Winston Salem, & High Point)of NC. We have had WiMax for 9 months now and it has progressively gotten better as they are building out the network. Consequently, I am an authorized dealer as well so my perspective is a little more detailed. I have been through it all from 5 lights and DL speeds of less than 1 mbps to barely getting a signal at all and living less than a mile away from the tower. However, now it's seems pretty stable.
@-bwg: I'm surprised that you weren't offered a set of ethernet adapters. That should have resolved your modem location issue without having to move anything. You may want to revisit that issue.
@RHMathis:I am curious as to what CLEAR modem series you have (25150,series G or M)? As far as speed is concerned, I average anywhere from 8 mbps to 13mbps. Sometimes, I will have insane speeds such as this http://bit.ly/bvQwjs about 2 hours ago. I wonder how far you are from the nearest tower/antenna ?
@robpegoraro: CLEAR has come out with a lesser expensive 3G/4G USB card for $114.99.

Posted by: problemsolver70 | July 7, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I would be interested to hear if your service has improved in recent days. It looks as though they suddenly added coverage to significant areas of the city (at least in my neck of NW, which wasn't quite covered at launch)

Posted by: mirrorball | July 7, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Rob, the response in the tech support forum is incorrect. It is impossible to support 802.16m as there is no equipment. No client devices, no server devices (base stations). There is no equipment as there is no standard on which to base construction of equipment.

I refer you to this primary document from the WiMAX Forum, the industry-led organization formed to promote and certify WiMAX equipment. (Just a reminder that WiMAX is the trade name for the technology based on the 802.16 family of standards created in IEEE 802.)

http://www.wimaxforum.org/sites/wimaxforum.org/files/page/2009/12/wimax_2_collaboration_initiative_qa_april_12_2010.pdf

The name they use for 802.16m is WiMAX 2. See part 5. The gist of this April 2010 document is that milestones and equipment delivery schedules will be coming out in 3-6 months from that April date. The 802.16m standard is still being worked on and is expected to be completed in the second half of 2010.

This is confirmed by the following document, the latest IEEE 802.16m work plan, another primary document; it is confusing and I won't take the time here to explain it, but it does show that the 802.16m standardization work is incomplete today but might be complete in a few months.

http://www.ieee802.org/16/tgm/docs/80216m-10_0010.pdf

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | July 7, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

I don't have Clear but can confirm DNS problems from 2-3 weeks ago with Sprint Mobile Broadband... how do we know what network provider we are really running on? Config is MBB Card w/linksys and ethernet to airport.

I had no problem with tracert through to linksys... reboot of linksys seemed to help on a couple of occasions. Only a couple of instances in the last few days (on weekend).

Posted by: wtjr | July 7, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Since Comcast is an investor in Clearwire, I wouldn't expect Clearwire to undercut their price for similar speeds.

Posted by: seacue | July 7, 2010 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Trade them.

Posted by: RobertCurleyJacobs | July 8, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

Portland was one of the initial roll-out cities for Clear, along with Baltimore. The verdict after more than a year is mixed. There is a Clear store in my dense, high-rise neighborhood, the Pearl District, so lots of people have Clear. People complain of slow speeds, drop outs or not being able to get a signal at all in apartments and condos. (The same often occurs with our iPhones.). My understanding is both T-Mobile and AT&T are faster than Clear's 4G if a device supports those enhanced speeds.

I did look at the cute new version of the Clearspot, a smaller oval, today and consider it as an iPad Wi-Fi companion. But, $40 per month is too much to pay for that limited use.

Posted by: query0 | July 8, 2010 5:40 AM | Report abuse

I'm not using Clear, but find the comments about DNS problems interesting. I was having a terrible time with timeouts and server not found - try again messages about 4 weeks ago that lasted for about 2 weeks. I use Comcast in Fort Lauderdale. I was about to man up and set aside an hour or two for a tech support call when the problem went away as quietly as it had appeared.

Posted by: POFTL | July 8, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Clear should move out to rural areas. Out in Northern Loudoun County, we're stuck with line-of-sight wireless Internet, and I'm paying $79/mo for 768kbps down. Highway robbery but I don't have any alternatives. I DO have a great cell phone signal though, with Short Hill Mountain nearby. Throw a couple towers up there and they'd be able to cover hundreds of homes. AT&T already has a large facility on the mountaintop.

Posted by: Duodenum | July 8, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Clear/Sprint has some time advantages here & need to take care of the areas least served such as the exurbs that the above poster mentioned.

Posted by: Rocc00 | July 8, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

So I guess if you have a lot of patience, then Clear may be for you.

On Verizon FiOS I get consistent and REAL 35 Mbps throughput up and down, and it DOES make a difference. A BIG difference! Indeed, when I run speed tests (which are available from many independent sites on the Internet), most of the time I actually do a bit better than the 35 Mbps that Verizon advertises, once as high as 41 Mbps, and NEVER lower.

Yeah, it needs wires, but my D-Link N-router takes care of that in my home.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | July 8, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I get one bar in Adams Morgan. That looks pretty funny now that I've typed it.

All in all, it works pretty well, though speeds seem to drop a lot when I'm simultaneously using the Clear VOIP and internet.

Posted by: weetabixjihad | July 8, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

40 bucks a month isn't exactly a bargain

Posted by: MagicDog1 | July 8, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

As much as I would love to get rid of Comcast up here in Baltimore, I can't find any good reason to get Clear. I get 18-28 Mbps for 49.99!

Posted by: slaka | July 8, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Clear sold me service saying I had coverage. When it didn't work and I called tech support, they said I was not in a covered area (within zip 20001). Looking closely at the map, there are so many holes that coverage that mobile service is worthless.

Posted by: mdembski1 | July 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I haven't used Clear's service, but I always see them standing outside of Radio Shack advertising.

Comparing a wireless radio to land-based fiber optics is simply absurd. Fiber optics carry light signals to communicate, no? So of course wifi can compete with fiber optics based tech.

In any case, I'd like to see this technology bloom. Not only will it bring more money to Washington state, where I live, it's how the internet should be -- boundless.

Posted by: jaiko86 | July 8, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I dropped my Comcast service here in Houston in favor of Clear and am happy with the result.

I never get full 6Mbs download speeds, but I do consistently get 4.5-5Mbs, compared with a less than 1Mbs from Comcast (who also claim "up to" 6Mbs download speed). Uploads have been consistently close to 1Mbs with Clear versus less than 200Kbs from Comcast (with a claimed "up to" 2Mbs upload speed).

But the big win has been in reliability. My Clear connection has gone done exactly once since I switched in May, while I would routinely log dozens of disconnects daily with Comcast (who weren't interested in working the problem as long as my connection reestablished itself automatically).

My worry is that as more people make the switch Clear's service will begin to deteriorate. More users sharing the same infrastructure has got to lead to poorer service for all, just as it did with Comcast. I had no complaints with my cable internet service when I first signed up with RoadRunner (before Comcast took over from them) but it eventually got so bad that I am delighted to have an alternative like Clear to turn to.

I do note that Comcast is a part owner in Clearwire, so maybe they'll notice if more of us defect.

Posted by: TheLurker | July 8, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

I've been a Clear customer since Jan 2009. My home internet and voice runs over Clear WiMAX service. Its simply great. I use Vonage for voice over Clear WiMAX service. I've had no problems. I also have a Clear WiMAX enabled Laptop. See my Youtube Video showing Clear's mobility of the service. I got close to 10Mbps at 40mph driving to PDX airport. So don't believe those who say WiMAX is NOT fully mobile, they don't have a clue. Use it and believe it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAKu6v52-50

Posted by: puthenkulam | July 8, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

A shorter video link for the Mobile WiMAX drive test http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_G12GN_Pnc4&feature=related

Posted by: puthenkulam | July 8, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

My housemate purchased a new computer with built-in WiMax. Best Buy sold her the Clear service - 2 YEAR CONTRACT with 14 days to cancel. The service was not what she was expecting - needless to say she is dissatisfied. She called the Best Buy salesperson who sold her the service, he told her that she needed to call Clear customer service to cancel. She called Clear customer service who told her she had to go to the store with the computer to cancel. She went to the store where the Clear salesperson told her she had to call customer service to cancel. Needless to say she is frustrated and worrying that she will be stuck with a service that does not meet her needs.

Posted by: all73127 | July 11, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Clear 4G Wimax operates inm the band 2500 to 2690 MHz, while your 3G service operates roughly about 1 MHz below that. The signal in the band 2500 to 2690 Mhz is not as "good" for penetrating walls, foliage, and other effects that cause signal dropouts. So if your pretty far inside a building you will have less signal strength with the 4G, hence lower speeds. It uses adaptive modulation and you only get the full speed when you have very strong signal. The diffference from full signal strength 64 QAM to weak signal QPSK is huge for the data rates.

Posted by: nowhine | July 12, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

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