As I discussed previously, my search for a mobile broadband solution for Tech Field Day led me to the nascent 4G networks springing up around the world. Here in the United States, two next-generation networks offered compelling performance: Clearwire’s WiMAX service (sold by Clear and Sprint) and Verizon Wireless’ LTE network. I purchased a modem on each network and tested performance and usability while traveling before deciding that the Verizon LTE network is the superior choice.
You should also read 4G Connectivity Options Proliferate and 4G: Is It Really A Standard If No One Cares? for more background, and Hands-On Review: Verizon 4G LTE (and the Novatel MiFi 4510l) to learn what I prefer over this device!
Note that T-Mobile USA also offers “4G” service in the USA. Although some rightly criticize the company for using this nomenclature on a 3G-derived HSPA+ network, it’s hard to argue with performance that meets or exceeds competing technologies. But AT&T’s pending purchase of T-Mobile USA throws the future of their network in doubt, since their spectrum will likely be repurposed as another LTE network in the coming year.
Clearwire WiMAX: Clear, Sprint, etc
After researching the 4G options, Clearwire’s WiMAX network emerged as an enticing option. The company has massive radio spectrum across the United States and has rolled out coverage in many major cities. And I appreciated the variety of devices and plans offered by Clear and Sprint, both of which use this network.
Clearwire was formed as a “super merger” of a diverse set of WiMAX supporters in the USA, and it inherited both their spectrum and infrastructure. This made Clearwire the global standard-bearer for WiMAX, which is why their recent announcement of an LTE network gave me pause. Is Clearwire really going to support both 4G network technologies long-term, or is WiMAX on the way out?
But Clearwire’s WiMAX coverage across the USA beats Verizon’s LTE, so I decided to give it a try. Since I am a long-time Cradlepoint user, I decided to purchase a USB “dongle” modem. But local resellers would not allow me to purchase one without a 2-year contract, and I was too skeptical about the long-term viability of their network to sign up for that. Instead, I turned to eBay, clicking “buy it now” on a brand new Clear-branded dongle for just $34 shipped.
I selected a combination 3G/4G dongle, thinking that it would offer the best possible coverage with Sprint’s CDMA network acting as a backup if WiMAX was unavailable. But opening the package revealed a 4G-only PXU1900 USB stick. The eBay seller no longer offered the combo device and offered a refund or 50% rebate if I kept the alternative they had sent. I decided on the latter, since it’s hard to beat $19!
The PXU1900 is light and compact, with a bulbous appearance. It does not feel particularly sturdy, and the two exposed antenna connectors on the back gave me pause. The USB jack folds into the body but is more difficult to flip out than I would like, and the red/orange/green connection status LED is overly bright and distracting beside a laptop keyboard.
The box contained an odd-shaped USB drive with (outdated) drivers and software. I much prefer it when USB devices include these internally. Luckily, Clear offers downloadable beta drivers for 64-bit Mac OS X “Lion”, and Cradlepoint supports this modem with their 4G driver firmware for my MBR1200 and new CBR400. But 4G is too much for my trusty old first-generation PHS300: I would have to upgrade to the second-generation PHS300 to use it.
Clear Pricing and Service Options
The basic Clear plans are fairly simple. Clear obviously wants to sign customers up for 2-year contracts, but the company offers more options if you are persistent. If you purchase your own hardware, you can sign up for month-to-month service at the same price, though a $35 activation fee applies and local resellers refused to sell me this option. This is an attractive option since WiMAX hardware is widely available and the future of the network is not at all secure.
I was surprised to learn of a third service option once I launched the Clear connection manager in Denver. If you own your own hardware, Clear offers a $10 “day pass” with no activation or cancellation fees. This is not available through Clear’s web site or by phone, though it is apparently possible to set up a day pass account in certain Clear stores. This is by far the best option for me, especially since Clear hasn’t bothered to turn the service off or re-bill me!
The easiest way to get a “day pass” is to simply launch the Clear Connection Manager and sign up through your browser. The modem will connect to a captive portal if service is available and you have no contract. From there, select “Click here to view your message” then select the 24 Hour Pass for $10.00. You will need to create an account with a credit card, and you’re set.
I was prepared to sign up month-to-month, but felt that the day pass was a better option for my needs. Since I don’t live in a WiMAX area, I would only use the device while traveling. And since I also purchased the Verizon LTE modem, I wouldn’t need Clear service except perhaps during Tech Field Day. As I mentioned, the Day Pass has remained active for almost a month anyway!
Real-World WiMAX Experience
I’ve now used the Clear service in Denver, Austin, Atlanta (airport), and Cleveland and feel I can pass judgement. And my decision isn’t positive: I rate the Clear service as questionable at best, and recommend looking for an alternative 4G option if possible.
What’s wrong with Clear’s WiMAX?
- Unless you’re in a solid coverage area today, don’t sign a long-term contract. Although coverage is fairly good today for major cities, Clearwire and Sprint are adopting LTE, and this calls the long-term future of their WiMAX network into question. Clearwire will likely continue to maintain existing WiMAX sites and service for quite a while, but I doubt they will aggressively expand the network.
- Clearwire has massive spectrum across the USA, but it’s in the 2.5-2.6 GHz “IMT-E” range, which is ample but doesn’t penetrate buildings well and is a total mess licensing-wise. My own experience shows throughput cut in half or more by moving inside a concrete-block building. Note that Sprint or AT&T LTE at 2.5/2.6 GHz will face the same limitations. Verizon’s 700 MHz “upper SMH band C” licenses include less spectrum but better coverage in my experience.
- 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi causes interference with 4G at 2.5 GHz, forcing users to separate modems from Wi-Fi antennas or just use Wi-Fi channels 1 or 2, increasing contention in an already-crowded range.
- The Clear Day Pass (and most Clear hardware) is 4G-only, so if you’re out of range you’re out of luck. All of Verizon’s LTE equipment and plans support both EVDO and LTE.
- Clear appears to severely throttle upload speed in many areas. I was able to get over 10 Mbps in Cleveland, but all other locations were limited to 300 Kbps even as real-world download speed was competitive with LTE at 5 Mbps and above!
- My USB modem is very sensitive to orientation, explaining the curious inclusion of a fancy USB angle adapter in the package. This isn’t as much of a problem with a fixed installation, but mobile users will see fluctuating speed and even dropped connections from moving the modem a tiny bit.
I know lots of folks who are happy with Clear or Sprint WiMAX service, and I applaud them for their no-contract Day Pass option. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that others go the same route I did: Buy a Clear modem on eBay and pay $10 per day whenever you need connectivity. But I strongly discourage readers from signing up for a long-term contract with Clear. Sprint subscribers will likely be upgraded to LTE eventually, but the future of Clear is very, very cloudy.
And Verizon’s LTE service is so good, there’s no reason to go for WiMAX at all. But that’s a story for another day!
Next, read Hands-On Review: Verizon 4G LTE (and the Novatel MiFi 4510l) for my preferred device!