Monday, May 31, 2010

4G: Not Ready for Prime Time

We recently tried Clear 4G (Wimax) internet service at home. Cost-wise, it's much cheaper than Comcast. We paid Clear about $70/mo for a home modem and a pocket USB modem (that supported both 3G and 4G). That's about what we were paying Comcast just for home internet. On top of that, I have a Sprint 3G/4G modem that I pay $60/mo for. My hope was that Clear could replace service from both Comcast and Sprint.

We really wanted to be out from under the Comcast near-monopoly. OK, Clear is partly-owned by Comcast (and is 51% owned by Sprint), so we're not exactly dealing with an independent, but we still wanted to try it. Truth be told, though, Clear was one of the worst internet providers I've ever had.

I had been thinking about it for a while. I already had the Sprint 3G/4G modem -- "Sprint 4G" is really Clear Wimax. So I figured that I was already experienced with the service. I mentioned on Twitter that we were considering making the leap, and a very helpful Clear sales rep responded to me via Twitter, offering to bring over a modem and set it up for us. We took him up on his offer, and he came over the next day.

The setup process was pretty painless. The Clear rep had a bit of trouble with his laptop, but it got sorted out, in the end. We tested our Roku box while he was there, and it was able to stream Netflix or Amazon videos just fine. So, we went for it, switched the home network over to Clear, and turned off Comcast.

Clear worked well....for about two days. Then we started having problems.
  • You get knocked off line at about 4:00 pm just about every day. My wife always works from home, and I often do, so this is problematic. Losing connection to the client's Webex webcast mid-call is not a fun situation to be in.
  • Speeds seem "OK" most of the time but seem to take a dramatic drop about 7:00 pm. From megabits to modem speeds. Or dead stop.
  • Video streaming services like Netflix usually worked OK after forcing the Roku box to use a low bit rate. But, Clear just sort of "poops out" periodically. It couldn't keep up any sort of sustained bit rate. It's hard to watch a TV show when it stops every three minutes to re-buffer for another sixty seconds.
Keep in mind, a big part of Clear's advertising talks up streaming video and audio "anywhere you go." It wasn't exactly like we were trying to use the service for something other than what it was designed for.

I did a lot of research online, and called in once or twice. Theories for poor performance ranges from weather conditions, other users on the same Wimax cell splitting bandwidth, etc., but I was never able to conclusively figure out why performance was so slow.

We weren't expecting blazing speeds. I know it's wireless, and it's not going to be as fast as Comcast. But, we couldn't go a day without some huge irritating lag in the connection, web browsing slowing to a crawl, or continual re-buffering of streaming video.

So, we gave up, and called Comcast back to turn cable internet back on. Turns out, they "have to" send a rep out to re-enable internet service that had been off for no more than two weeks. Probably a bit less than that. But, whatever. They came out, they checked the wiring, they turned everything back on, and suddenly we're back to getting reliable 20 megabit connections over coax.

There's another thing to consider. When everything is working GREAT with Wimax, you're going to get about 1.5 megabits. When it's not working great, we were getting about .3 megabit (or nothing at all). Comcast, from its worst to best, was ranging anywhere from 3.5-20 megabit.

The latency is a lot higher with Wimax, obviously, but I didn't write down any of my ping test numbers, so there's not much useful I can share in that regard, beyond telling you that a wired connection is usually going to be better than a wireless connection.

Since then, I've picked up an Apple iPad with AT&T 3G built in. I'm not a huge fan of AT&T, but I figured it would be good for light use while traveling. In my random tests, I found that AT&T 3G is often faster than Clear Wimax (Sprint 4G).

In fact, it's about time for me to dump the Sprint modem. I use it mostly for reading the web while traveling, and now I can do that with the iPad.


lluad said...

4G is mostly a marketing term being used by Sprint and Verizon because their "3G" networks can't be upgraded much beyond their current performance so they need to switch protocols, while the AT&T and T-Mo networks can stay faster by upgrading their existing "3G" networks without changing protocols.

So Sprint and Verizon are going to push "4G" as a product name, while AT&T and T-Mo not so much. And Sprint 4G is really WiMax, which is pretty much a dying technology. Everyone else is going with a different standard, "LTE".

The AP covered it pretty well:

Al Iverson said...

Yeah, I was just reading that article, it nudged me to finally blog about my experiences.

Not only is Spring 4G really Clear Wimax, but depending on what modem you get, it will just be a Sprint modem with a "Clear" sticker stuck over the Sprint logo.

And I almost forgot how Clear just won't sync sometimes; it'll just sit and spin and say "connecting"....sometimes for 30 minutes.

Not only is 4G not the future, but I kinda suspect that there may be problems with Clear's Wimax implementation beyond the technology itself. I've never had such a flaky connection before or since.