Clear Advantage: Taking WiMAX for a Spin
By Michael Hall
Continued from page one.
Clear in Use
Ease of setup is nice, and it definitely felt liberating to skip the 7-10 day waiting period DSL installations can entail, but none of that would count for much if the service didn’t deliver. So for the first few days I had Clear running I paid close attention to several usage scenarios:
Browsing was as responsive and quick as it seemed it should be for the promised speed, downloads routinely arrived at or just above the promised 6Mbps connection speed, and when we used the Roku in combination with browsing or downloads, it connected at the maximum quality (3Mbps) with plenty of bandwidth to spare for other activities. My five-year-old son got his streaming Spongebob episodes, I got anything else I could think of.
For streaming media from things besides the Roku (laptops streaming Hulu and a pay-per-view event from Yahoo Sports), the connection was smooth and skip/stutter free over hours of continuous viewing.
I also ran tests using speedtest.net and the Speakeasy Speed Test, which offer basic reports on upload/download speeds and connection latency. The connection generally tested between 5.5 and 6Mbps, with occasional spikes to 6.5Mbps and occasional, rare dips to 3.6Mbps. Latency was generally reported at 80-90ms for tests involving servers in Portland or Seattle. Since speedtest.net keeps track of test results for a given IP address, and since my Clear IP address remained the same during the time I was testing my connection, I was able to check out my history and come up with some numbers:
Since we’re on the tail end of Portland’s legendary rainy season, I got a few days of heavy rain and wind that might help serve as a clue to how well the wireless technology holds up in adverse weather: Speeds were consistently in the 5-6Mbps range on those days, too.
The first few days I tested, I did so with the Clear box in a second floor office window, as recommended in the installation guide. After a day or two I moved it across the room and against an interior wall, but the speeds I was noting didn’t change appreciably. I did, however, have to turn the unit 90 degrees to get it to go from showing three or four lights signal strength to a full five. Against the inside wall, it occasionally drops down to four lights, but there’s no noticeable change in speed when that happens.
Because Clear is a wireless service, it’s sensitive to distance from a WiMAX antenna. In the case of its Portland deployment, Clear is promising a little less than it can deliver in optimal conditions: Before I was completely moved into my new house I tried Clear out at my old location just three blocks away from an array of WiMAX antennas mounted on a water tower. Sitting that close to the antennas, with such a direct line of sight, speedtest.net regularly reported 6.5-7Mbps connections.
The takeaway from all this is that Clear, when compared to cable or DSL, isn’t perfectly consistent, even if it does seem to perform within a reliable range. Considering the range it does work within, and considering my usage patterns, it’s well within the bounds of acceptable performance.
Before I placed my order for Clear I looked around for other reviews. Because it’s a new service (Clear launched in Portland in January, and its sister service in Baltimore launched in late 2008), there wasn’t much. A local reporter said speeds varied a bit depending on his location in town, which is to be expected. Local bloggers have reported that the greater Portland metro area has some dead spots, too, particularly in the southeast.
In anticipation of this sort of variability, something one might reasonably expect from a wireless service, Clear offers a seven-day trial period, which Oregon law extends to 30 days. That’s plenty of time to get a sense of how consistent the connection is and whether it’s delivering the promised speed. If you live in an area that’s underserved by traditional broadband providers and you’d like more speed eventually, you can pay $35 up front and walk away any time. In the mean time, if you move to a new house or apartment, reinstallation is as simple as unplugging your Clear modem and plugging it back in elsewhere.
The two things about Clear’s products I can’t report on are the mobile service (the USB modem doesn’t work with Macs) and the voice service (which I have, but haven’t yet tested very thoroughly). I’ll be back in a few weeks with some notes on Clear’s voice service, and whether it’s an adequate replacement for a traditional landline.
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