Clearwire's 4G WiMAX service is fast, but is it good enough to replace Cable or DSL Broadband?
Recently, I had a chance to evaluate Clear Wireless's 4G WiMax service, which recently began a national rollout in the last few weeks. I was really interested in seeing how well the service performed, given that I've been plagued with horrendous hotel Wi-Fi in my business travel in the last year or so.
Clearwire is a company that is owned largely by Sprint Nextel, and shares the same 4G technology platform, WiMAX, which is an internationally recognized wide area communications protocol for wireless services.
As currently defined, WiMAX has a theoretical burst mode capability of 40Mbps, with a proposed revision to the standard offering up to 1Gbps speeds. But as deployed today on Clear, the company advertises download speeds of anywhere between 2Mbps and 6Mbps (Megabits per second) depending on your location, how much the signal penetrates the building your are in, the congestion of the network at the time, et cetera.
This is not to say 2 to 6 Mbps is slow by mobile wireless standards. Compared to most 3G systems in place today, it's blazing fast. And if you compare it to the throttling and rate capping that you're likely to encounter in most hotels or in public Wi-Fi hotspots, even the 2Gbps expected performance in a worst-case scenario is still eight times faster than the 256Kbps Wi-Fi that I've encountered in many business hotels.
Clearwire provided me with a USB 4G Sierra Wireless modem for using for my tests. The device is a plug-and play affair, you simply stick it into your USB port and Windows will detect it auto-magically and install the required software. For our tests, we used a Windows 7 desktop PC, with all current patches at the time. In post-installation, the Clear client connectivity software also updated itself to the latest version.
As the service is currently sold, there are a number of data plan and service combos. You can purchase plans that are exclusively 4G, or ones with 4G and 3G roaming capability. In addition to the Sierra Wireless USB modem for laptops, they also have mobile hotspots for sale as well, which allow you to connect to the service using the Wi-Fi interface on your notebook, your iPad, or even your smartphone. If you bring several devices with you when you travel, I'd encourage you to look at the mobile hotspot option.
Our primary test site was a residential second floor apartment in Garfield, New Jersey, using a Dual-core Athlon X2 64-bit Windows 7 desktop PC. In order to test throughput, we used the OOKLA Speedtest.net service as well as the Video Speed Test on YouTube. We also tested downloads and playback using Apple's QuickTime 7 plugin for Windows and the Apple Movie Trailers site.
To maximize reception, we positioned the PC in a room with a large window. We also alternated between having the USB modem connected directly to the port as well as having it sit on the windowsill itself using a long USB extension cable connected to the PC. Overall, we found that the closer that the device was to the window, the better reception and faster throughput we got.
In the OOKLA tests, we were able to achieve the burst mode and sustained transfer rates advertised by Clearwire. It should be noted that using this test suite, our Garfield, New Jersey location was identified as Weatherford, TX, a Dallas/Fort Worth suburb which is probably the location of the main Clear network operations center (NOC). Our IP was identified as 22.214.171.124
Results using different OOKLA Speedtest.net servers (best times after ten tries each):
Weatherford, TX: Ping 277ms, Download 7.03Mbps, Upload 0.84Mbps
Garfield, New Jersey: Ping 100ms, Download 6.81Mbps, Upload 0.94Mbps
Clifton, New Jersey: Ping 75ms, Download 7.00Mbps, Upload 0.87Mbps
New York City: Ping 93ms, Download 6.87Mbps, Upload 0.93Mbps
In using the YouTube video test page, we were able to sustain playback of 720p video for approximately one hour and a half, at 24-30fps frame rates. We were also able to play back various movies using NetFlix and HD video content from the Apple trailer site without interruption.
It should also be noted that the USB modem felt VERY hot to the touch after pumping so much data through the device, but that's probably to be expected.
So is Clearwire fast? Absolutely. Should you replace your home DSL or Cable connection with it? Probably not.
Where I see the most amount of benefit being derived from this service is the business traveler like myself who needs no-compromise speed and wants to take advantage of streaming services when they are away from home. In a scenario such as this, paying $45 per month for an unlimited 4G plan or $55 a month for a hybrid 4G/3G plan for comprehensive national wireless coverage is probably a no-brainer, especially if they are using a portable access point to use the service.
But home broadband users need reliable connectivity. I also tested the service in my own home, in my wife's downstairs office using a similar Windows 7 PC, with the USB modem connected directly to the port. While the downstairs office has a window on each wall, they are at street level, and I wasn't able to get any 4G service at all. I was able to connect to 3G, but I only got two bars.
Considering that Cable and DSL plans are in the same pricing ballpark as Clearwire, and a typical cable setup will give you anywhere between 15-20Mbps downstream, Clear is probably only good for those folks who can't get Cable or DSL on their premises at all. But I'd wager if they can't get those, Clearwire probably isn't going to get good reception in those areas either.
Another consideration is that in the next few months, Verizon and other carriers will be rolling out their 4G implementations, and haven't announced pricing and availability yet. Clearwire is definitely the first out of the gate and there's no question in my mind that the service is great for business travelers, but will Verizon's LTE implementation turn out to have superior coverage and/or throughput? That remains to be seen.
Have you purchased Clearwire's 4G service? Or are you waiting for another 4G mobile wireless solution, such as Verizon LTE? Talk Back and Let Me Know.