4G Comes to Harrisburg

As someone who has consistently had mobile Internet since the late 90s, I’m what you would call an early adopter.  About the only technology I missed out on is CDPD.  But ever since the earliest days of circuit-switched 9600-baud data with PCS One, I’ve done it all.  GPRS, EDGE, 1xRTT, EVDO, UMTS — been there, done that.  I’ve even dabbled on closed platforms like OpenSky.  Having worked in the wireless industry for eight years, I don’t need to be sold on how great wireless Internet really is.

If you’ve never tried it, wireless Internet is 27 different kinds of awesome.  Imagine having WiFi readily available everywhere you go (unless you have AT&T).  Doesn’t matter if you’re on the train to New York, sitting in your office on the west shore, or floating down the Susquehanna on a pontoon boat — you can have unfettered, unrestricted, high-speed access to everything, everywhere, all the time.

And late last month, it got even faster.

For the last few years, we’ve had a few flavors of 3G service in the area.  AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless all offer 3G service in the area.  While T-Mobile’s UMTS is technically the fastest, their coverage is the most … “lean”.  And although Verizon’s speed is the slowest (bear in mind that “slow” is relative, as you’re still about 1/3rd the speed of a typical cable modem), their 3G service is pretty much everywhere.  Sprint is a close second, and AT&T offers faster speeds but almost no coverage.

Before I talk about Clear’s service and coverage, let me give you a quick wireless primer.  The days of “voice-only” customers are rapidly dwindling, as anyone with a Droid / Blackbery / iPhone / WinMo device will tell you.  And the more you know about the underlying technology, the better-armed you are as a consumer — and the more likely you are to see through marketing hype.

First, I’m keeping this very simple.  The lines between 2G, 2.5G, and 3G tend to get a little blurry depending on who you talk to or who won the most recent edit war on Wikipedia.  The descriptions that follow are pretty straightforward as they apply to most non-technically-inclined people.

Cellular service as we know it in the US started with analog service in the early 1980s. This is regarded as first-generation service (though to be fair, it was by no means the first commercial cellular deployment; you do not want to know what came before this).  Technically known as AMPS — Advanced Mobile Phone System — analog service was plagued with static, crosstalk, bulky phones, and rampant fraud.  While wireless data did exist, it was generally over the CDPD network at a whopping 19.2k.  It was largely limited to public safety and commercial applications.

In the late 90s, wireless companies began rolling out second-generation (2G) wireless networks.  New networks — mainly using GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (Sprint and Verizon Wireless) — were built to accommodate the new features and handle heavier call volumes.   Data in the 2G era used platforms like GPRSEDGE, and 1xRTT and delivered peak speeds of 50k – 200k.  And beginning in the early 2000s, 3G data platforms like EVDO and UMTS have largely supplanted the 2G data networks (except on AT&T, which still relies heavily on EDGE for the bulk of its national data coverage).

So here we are.  Long story short?  Data has gone from 9600-at-best during the circuit-switched days to true over-the-air broadband at speeds of around 1.5 – 4mb/s today.  And the way we use our devices has changed dramatically, too.  We used to turn the phone on, make a call, and turn it off.  Today, voice is an afterthought for us; our devices are always on, always connected, and give us a perpetual window to friends and family.

But as great as 3G is, its end is already near.  Verizon Wireless and AT&T are building out their own independent 4G networks using LTE.  Sprint, by way of Clearwire, is building its 4G network using WiMax.  Verizon will begin building their network in a few more weeks, while AT&T will begin in 2011 — but Clear is up and running right now.  I have to point out that neither of these platforms is “true” 4G.  The differences are, frankly, pedantic, and are beyond the scope of this blog.

About two weeks ago I was given an Edge 4G USB aircard to test out for 30 days.  I’ve been tinkering with it, and it’s not bad.  I’ll go into more detail in a few days.  Today I wanted to get this post up to give you a background, and so I can clear this off my “Drafts” page.

Because I have a budget to start blogging about.