Back on April 28th, I attended a launch party at the Abbey Bar for Clear, a 4G wireless Internet provider that just recently launched service in Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, and Reading. As part of the event, I received a USB aircard with 30 days’ worth of free service to use as I saw fit. Previously, I talked about the launch event itself and gave you an extremely basic primer on wireless data. With that out of the way, let me tell you about my early experiences with the service itself.
Full disclosure: I received the aircard for free and one month of service for free. At the end of my evaluation period, I have to give the aircard back unless I want to continue service.
AT&T, Clear, Sprint, T-Mobile*, and Verizon Wireless are all launching 4G networks. Sprint resells Clear, and they’re the first out of the gate. They are currently the only publicly-available 4G network in the US. Verizon will be next in line, with a build scheduled to begin within the next 6-8 weeks. AT&T will start sometime in 2011. T-Mobile is an interesting exception, because their 3G network — according to them — is faster than the 4G networks planned by the other big three.
With my Asus eee PC 1201n in tow, I began testing the Clear adapter.
Right off the bat I ran into a hiccup. The drivers included with the adapter don’t work with Windows 7 (or, for that matter, OS X). I had to come home, download updated drivers from their website, and install them separately. Windows 7 isn’t exactly new — the RTM has been available for almost a year now, giving developers plenty of time to work things out.
Once I got the drivers installed, however, the process of using the aircard was painless. In my real-world testing at various locations in and around Harrisburg, I’ve measured an average speed of 3.5 / 1.3. The slowest location was St. Thomas Roasters (0.6/ 0.3), and the fastest was Midtown Scholar (5.6 / 1.5). Hands down, Clear is the fastest cellular Internet connection I’ve ever used! But there’s a catch.
Since Clear is building their own 4G network from the ground up, coverage is extremely limited. In my opinion, calling it threadbare would be extremely generous. It didn’t work in my office, my garage, or my basement — all places with strong Verizon Wireless coverage. To be fair, AT&T doesn’t work in my basement or garage either, and they only barely work in my office. But having become accustomed to having 3G damn near everywhere, I was especially mindful of Clear’s coverage holes.
To counter this, Clear’s devices fall back to 3G (using Sprint’s EVDO Rev A network) when no 4G signal is available. During my testing, this failed miserably. It took several minutes to try to coax the device into 3G mode, and even then coverage was variable.
I tested the device’s automatic 3G / 4G switching by driving to work with my netbook on the floor streaming an Internet radio station. This is a very lightweight connectivity test, as it only requires a 128k connection and will buffer through any minor interruptions. Since I couldn’t get coverage in my parking garage, I started the test in front of my building. I fired up the netbook, plugged in the USB aircard, and waited for signal.
After about three minutes, I decided I was in a dead spot, so I pulled up to Second & State. No signal. A few minutes later, I pulled up to Second & Forster. Finally able to pull in a 4G signal, I launched the player and drove off to work. I made it to Cameron St & I-81 before losing signal. It bounced back on for a few seconds around the old Earthlink building, but that was it. It’s not that the stream got interrupted when it switched from 4G to 3G — it’s that it never switched. When I got to work and looked down, my signal indicator was at zero.
I know for a fact, from first-hand experience, that Sprint provides 3G coverage in and around my building. But my Clear 4G USB aircard simply would not or could not pick it up, no matter how much I begged or pleaded.
I’m sure Clear is constantly expanding their network, and I’ll continue to test this for the full 30 days. And while the service has its shortcomings, Clear is doing something we’ve all been screaming for for decades — bringing more competition to the wireless industry. Competition drives down rates, improves service, and gives consumers more choice. My early impression is that Clear’s product is solid, and if they can get their coverage up to par, they’ll do well.
Another review in two weeks …
* – T-Mobile is currently deploying HSPA+, which has a theoretical maximum speed of around 21 mb/s. This puts them in the unusual position of having a 3G network that is, for the moment, faster than any 4G network (at least for the next few years). Nonetheless, T-Mobile has stated that they plan on upgrading to LTE in the future.