By Michael Hall

I’ve known for a while that there’s nothing like a move to cause one to reassess old habits, but it wasn’t until just this month that I ever thought of DSL as a habit. Then again, I’ve always lived in areas well served by broadband providers. This time around, though, not only did I find myself moving to a location where DSL coverage isn’t so good, but a newer kind of wireless broadband called “WiMAX” has come to town, offering few enough strings to make it worth trying out.

WiMAX has been around for a few years. Practically Networked’s sibling site Enterprise Networking Planet has been reporting on WiMAX since 2004, and it has seen a lot of use in Asian markets, but in the United States it’s still largely a regional phenomenon, with nationwide deployments still pending. WiMAX is interesting for several reasons:

  1. It’s wireless, so there’s no need to depend on laying new line or wiring up a building.
  2. It offers specifications for mobile and fixed use, so an ISP can provision its customers with hardware to handle both kinds of use instead of relying on separate wired/wireless infrastructure.
  3. WiMAX base stations can provide service to end points many miles away (though there’s a tradeoff in speed as distances increase).

WiMAX became interesting to me when I moved from one end of Portland, Oregon to another and found that the CO for my new house was a distant 11,000 feet away. My family isn’t the most bandwidth-hungry group on the block, but between our normal Web surfing, VoIP phone service and a Roku Netflix player we brought home at Christmas, we’ve found ourselves straining at the 3Mbps leash DSL imposed on us. At our new house, we learned, we’d be lucky to get 3Mbps connections, and even then we’d lose speed on our uplink.

Learning that DSL wasn’t going to cut it set off a flurry of phone calls to other providers. Our only other choice was going with a cable connection, but we’ve dealt with Comcast in the past and didn’t care to repeat the experience.

All in all, it was a pretty distressing situation: I’ve been a DSL customer with one provider or another since 1998. DSL has its problems, but I’ve always lived close enough to a CO to get good, fast download speeds, and I’ve generally found DSL to be as reliable as the local power grid, with fewer than a dozen outages over the past 11 years.

Enter Clear

Late last year Portland came under marketing assault by Clear, the marketing name for Clearwire Corporation, which has received investments from a number of big names in the tech industry, including Intel, Sprint and Google. A number of Clear stores opened up, each seemingly marketed independently of the others though they all use the same logos and copy on their flyers.

“Marketing assault” might be too gentle a term. I found leaflets in my neighborhood donut shop, shoved into newspaper boxes, tucked under doorknobs, stuck under windshield wipers and handed out by roving teams of Clear representatives. There are a number of bus stop benches, billboards and signs around town that read “This isn’t a bus stop [or billboard, or parking space]” that go on to explain it’s actually a place you could use Clear’s mobile service.

The thrust of most of the marketing material is the mobile side of Clear’s business, which promises up to 4Mbps connection speeds in three monthly pricing tiers:

  • $30 per month for up to 200MB of data, $10 per gigabyte of data over 200MB
  • $40 per month for up to 2GB of data, $10 per gigabyte of data over 2GB.
  • $50 per month for unlimited data

Signing up for a two-year contract will earn a waiver on the $35 setup fee, and there are combinations of mobile and residential service that allow for reductions in the monthly cost as well.

The residential offering doesn’t involve data caps but is instead tiered by speed:

  • $20 per month for 786Kbps download/128Kbps upload speed
  • $30 per month for 3Mbps download/384Kbps upload speed
  • $40 per month for 6Mbps download/512Kbps upload speed

There’s also a $4.99 monthly equipment fee if you don’t opt to buy the Clear modem. For customers who take a two-year contract, Clear waives the $35 setup fee.

For another $25 per month, Clear offers a voice service with a number of free options, including voice mail, caller ID, selective call forwarding, selective call blocking, e-mail access to voice mail and a Web management tool for all the features. Like any other carrier, Clear offers number portability, too. Telephony is a natural add-on for Clear, since the WiMAX specification includes provisions for voice QoS.

Clear is just new enough, and the existing reviews of the service are just vague enough, that I wasn’t interested in signing up for a two-year contract. Instead, I opted to pay the $35 setup fee in case Clear failed to deliver on the promised 6Mbps connection, so I could order cable and get a bit more speed for more money (and the pain of Comcast customer “support”).

Clear Setup

Signing up with Clear was a five-minute-long process that involved little more than providing a credit card number and an address so the agent could prequalify the location, since some parts of the broader metro area aren’t covered yet. The equipment for my installation arrived the next morning

I’ve been through five DSL installations over the past ten years, which means I’ve spent five mornings or afternoons waiting for someone from the telco to arrive “between 8 and noon” or “between 1 and 5” to connect my demarc box to the outside world with varying degrees of efficiency. Consequently, it was with mild giddiness that I realized the arrival of the Clear equipment was all I needed to get going with my new connection.

“The Clear equipment” is pretty simple stuff: A black, rectangular box with five lights along the top and a swiveling stand that allows it to either stand alone or be mounted on a window or wall with an optional suction-cup/adhesive strip kit.

Because it always makes sense to reduce the number of things that can go wrong, I decided to connect the Clear box directly to my computer (a MacBook) before dragging routers or switches into the equation. The setup instructions came on a glossy sheet of paper folded up booklet-style and involving exactly three steps:

  1. Plug the Clear box into the wall.
  2. Plug the Clear box into your computer (or wired/wireless router/access point)
  3. Turn on your computer.

Having so few steps confused me rather badly, to the point I carefully unfolded the little booklet to make sure there weren’t more instructions lurking around. By the time I decided there were no more instructions, the five green lights on the top of the Clear box had stopped blinking, which meant it had a fix on a signal and considered itself connected to the Internet. I opened a Web browser and tried to load a page, which it did. That was it. I was done. The Clear box acts as a DHCP server, so it handled giving my laptop an IP address and telling it which DNS servers to use.

Connecting the Clear box to either a Buffalo Wi-Fi router running dd-wrt or an Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n base station worked just as smoothly once they were configured to use DHCP for their WAN connections and provide DHCP for my computers.

Continued on page two.