Saturday, May 31, 2008

Testing out AT&T 3G

I've had Sprint Mobile Broadband (EVDO) for a while, but my modem is wearing out (USB connector problems) and Sprint just instituted a 5 gigabyte monthly cap. I don't know if I hit that cap, but with that change, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T all now have a 5G cap, and they all charge $60/month. As a result, Sprint lost any advantage from my perspective, and I decided to see about switching over to service from AT&T.

I stopped in at my local AT&T store today and picked up a USBConnect 881 wireless modem. I stopped at my office on the way home and installed the software. Just plugging in the modem mounts a read-only drive with the software installer on it. No installer CD to lose, which was neat.

The installer takes a good long while, and requires a reboot. After reboot, you wait a good long while for the modem to start up the first time. That's when I started to run into problems. I just couldn't keep an AT&T connection from my office. It would say connected, I could maybe click on one web site, then it'd sit there and I'd get "server not found" errors in Firefox. Literally at the same time as I am browsing the web successfully on my Sprint connection 2 feet to the left.

OK, AT&T fails that test.

I brought everything home (just a few blocks south of my office), and fire it up again. This time I'm sitting right in the window, and I'm able to get a good, solid AT&T connection, according to the software.

Except...it's slow. Really slow. The latency for web browsing is killing me. That's odd, I think to myself. My friends who have AT&T say that "where they have rolled out 3G, it usually feels faster than Sprint."

Well, maybe AT&T hasn't rolled out 3G to my neighborhood in Chicago. Because this is horribly slow. Maybe it's AT&T's fallback network connection, EDGE. (AT&T is still rolling out 3G coverage, but while Chicago is supposed to be covered, my experience suggests that it's not complete. T-Mobile and AT&T are the last national providers still dealing with slow-as-molasses EDGE data networks.)

I did some head-to-head testing on www.speedtest.net and here's what I found:

ISP Ping time ms) Speed: Down (kbps) Speed: Up: (kbps)
AT&T 3G 397 88 61
Sprint EVDO 165 1065 323
Comcast 22 7701 1538


(I tested my home Comcast connection just for fun. It's not really apples to apples.)

Comparing AT&T versus Sprint, the Sprint connection is twelve (12!) times faster for downloading, and five times faster at uploading. Latency, the measure of how long it takes to send the smallest bit of information back and forth, is also important. A web page with eight images means nine requests to a web server. Even if all nine requests are tiny, you get penalized by a higher latency; if the latency is very high, you're really going to feel that nine different times as you wait for the images to load. And Sprint's latency is half as much as AT&T's, meaning the Sprint connection would feel faster, even if it wasn't.

I'm sorry to say that AT&T 3G is not ready for prime time, at least not here in my neighborhood in Chicago. Back to the store it goes.

Update: And back to the store it went. I was an AT&T customer for slightly under 24 hours. The people at the AT&T store were helpful and polite on both trips. It's a shame their network speeds just didn't cut it. After returning the AT&T modem, I went to my local neighborhood Radio Shack and picked up a replacement Sprint modem, which I am now using and happy with.

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