CLEAR Launches 4G WiMAX in Atlanta

If you live in Atlanta, you'll be happy to hear that there's a new ISP in town. And I'm not talking about just any type of Internet connection. I'm talking about WiMAX (read my Thoughts on WiMAX post). It's called CLEAR by Clearwire and its launch makes Atlanta the "Fastest Unwired City in the South". That's a pretty hefty claim that I'll have to put to the test later. CLEAR isn't the first WiMAX provider in the United States - Sprint launched WiMAX under their XOHM brand name in Baltimore last October, and other providers have been helping businesses with WiMAX coverage in major cities as well. But for Atlantans, CLEAR is the currently the only consumer choice when it comes to WiMAX, and considering that providers like Verizon have much slower 3G data plans with 5GB monthly download caps that cost about the same, CLEAR is starting to look pretty good.

Clearwire CLEAR Logo, Atlantic Station launch
Clearwire's new CLEAR logo

Yesterday's launch event was far from a little booth at the mall. They pulled out all the stops and took over the Atlantic Station shopping center in midtown Atlanta. There were lots of CLEAR demos being given as well as promotional information for visitors to take home.

CLEAR Launch Atlanta in Atlantic Station June 16, 2009
Atlantic Station CLEAR Launch Event

The Product

Unlike many of its competitors, CLEAR claims to be different, forgoing lengthy and expensive service contracts for mobile and residential plans that can be purchased by the month or by the day (a day pass will run you 10, provided you already have the hardware). However, despite that fluff if you signup for a two-year service agreement you get "additional savings", as well as if you get both a mobile and residential plan.

Most people will opt for the 50/month unlimited mobile Internet plan, which incurs a 35 activation fee for those not wishing to get roped into a two-year agreement (I'm looking at you AT&T, no way I'm paying 599 for an iPhone 3GS). I don't think it would be wise to get CLEAR's residential WiMAX for your home at this time (only 6 Mbps down), when other non-wireless providers can provide much, much faster connections for the same price.

Motorola USB WiMAX modem dongle
USB Motorola WiMAX modem dongle

So what's the difference between mobile and residential plans? For one, there's different hardware and different performance. When you're on the go, you only have two options - the hideous USB dongle (I would have preferred some smaller ExpressCard solutions), or using a new laptop with an Intel embedded WiMAX chipset. CLEAR's USB Motorola WiMAX modem costs 59 and they claim a typical download throughput of 4 Mbps (and 0.5 Mbps up) with that. Residential customers can opt for a book-sized WiMAX modem for 79 that is capable of a typical download throughput of 6 Mbps.

If anything, I'd be most interested in their Verizon MiFi competitor — the CLEAR Spot (139). Hook it up to the USB dongle and you've got an instant mobile Wi-Fi network for your laptop and 7 other Wi-Fi enabled devices (all sharing the 4 Mbps connection).

The Performance

For example, some of today's 3G wireless networks typically deliver download speeds of between 1.0 and 1.7 Mbps. CLEAR customers, however, can expect to see download speeds of 4 to 6 Mbps with bursts exceeding 15 Mbps, far surpassing even the peak theoretical speeds of 7.2 Mbps in upcoming 3G upgrades. In Atlanta, the CLEAR network utilizes an area-wide WiMAX radio system from Motorola.

- Clearwire

The first thing I did on their demo computers was get out of their kiosk mode Opera browser so I could run a bandwidth test. I navigated to speedtest.net, my go-to site when it comes to carrying out reliable bandwidth tests. It was on this site that I discovered something a bit odd, the CLEAR WiMAX connection was originating somewhere in Seattle. To clarify, it seems like all data for CLEAR users must hop along all the way from Seattle before coming to Atlanta. Can you say latency? (Disclosure: These were all just observations noted in a brief 2 minute test, YMMV. I didn't get to run any tracerts, et cetera.)

CLEAR 4G WiMAX Speedtests - Mobile and Home modem
CLEAR 4G WiMAX Speedtests - Mobile modem (left) and Home modem (right)

Interestingly enough, Seattle is where Sprint has their XOHM WiMAX network. Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are in cahoots and working together on this whole WiMAX thing. So if you see a Sprint WiMAX offering in Atlanta later on, the service might not be so different than CLEAR's.

That being said, I decided to simulate the speeds one could expect interacting with locally-hosted sites/services and performed several speed tests with speedtest.net's Atlanta-based test server, the same server that my home Internet connection can access just fine. For a laptop equipped with the mobile CLEAR service, I received 1.01 Mbps down and 410 Kbps up, compared to the 2.68 Mbps down and 900 Kbps up bandwidth for the residential CLEAR modem equipped laptop. Long story short, I can't definitively say anything about CLEAR's WiMAX service without a more thorough review, as their could be various lurking variables with the test setup I had at my disposal. I was expecting better service though.

I've been trying to get my hands on CLEAR hardware and service for a review for weeks now, but they are only testing it for PC users. Oh did I mention that their software for the mobile USB WiMAX dongle is only supported by Windows at the moment? I told their representatives that I could make it work (be it via the CLEAR Spot Wi-Fi access point, or playing around with VMware on my Mac), but they insisted that I "won’t experience the true speed of WiMAX" through Wi-Fi. Last I checked a 4 Mbps connection can't even max out 802.11b, let alone 802.11g. That's a task for a fiber Internet connection.

How WiMAX Works
For those needing a WiMAX refresher

Clearwire plans to expand its 4G network across other major metropolitan areas throughout the United States, with Baltimore and Portland already sporting CLEAR service. Las Vegas, Chicago, Charlotte, Dallas, Honolulu, Philadelphia and Seattle will get CLEAR later in 2009 while New York, Houston, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. residents will have to wait until 2010.

CLEAR WiMAX. cool buzzword? Yes. Neat logo? Check. Great for the perpetually-on-the-move coffee shop co-working types? Yup. Anything else? Pending further review. In other news, I dislike reviewing services whose names are in all caps; it feels like I'm just yelling each time I mention the company.

Does your city have a WiMAX service provider yet? What do you think about CLEAR? Are you currently a user of any for-your-laptop 3G/4G data services?

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"CLEAR Launches 4G WiMAX in Atlanta" by @Stammy

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