Back in about 25 B.C. Virgil said "Believe one who has tried it". We agree, so we try as much as possible to get personal experience with the things we write about. A recent trip gave us the opportunity to be in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and St. Cloud, Florida. That allowed us to try out three different forms of portable broadband wireless systems.
Our goal was to understand the different experiences and the types of users, usage scenarios, applications and costs that might fit with each system. We were not trying to do a quantitative comparison, although we did run some tests while looking at the various systems. We'll set the stage by first describing each system.
Nextel Wireless Broadband in Raleigh
In Raleigh, we met with Chris Baldwin of Flarion, the equipment supplier for Nextel Wireless Broadband . Flarion's technology enables truly mobile broadband--it can be used in a moving car (with someone else driving, of course). Flarion's "Flash-OFDM" technology is often grouped in the category "4G", and does not conform to any currently-approved standards.
Nextel's Web site promotes its wireless service for business use with the motto "Your office on the road". For consumers, the message is "Connect from anywhere".
Nextel's service is deployed throughout the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill geographical area -- known as "The Triangle". A map on Nextel's website shows the Triangle coverage area. Nextel has deployed an infrastructure of roughly 120 tower-mounted Flarion base stations; these currently support about 3000 users and could support many more.
Nextel offers a variety of packages, differing in speed, number of email accounts and features--such as VPN connections for business, or family plans for multiple users. The packages start with "Lite" (750 Kbps downlink/200 Kpbs uplink, with a monthly usage cap of 150 MB) and move up through Standard and Deluxe to Platinum (1.5 Mbps/375 Kbps with no cap). The Platinum account gets "Platinum priority" while the Lite account gets none. Current prices range from $35 to $75 per month.
The system is designed to support users with notebook PCs. A new user connects to the service by installing a simple program and plugging a wireless PC card modem into her portable PC.
Although the system supports both portability (moving devices from place to place) and mobility (using devices while in motion), some portion of Nextel's customers buy it as an alternative to cable or DSL for use solely in their homes with a desktop PC. For that application, Nextel provides a "wireless broadband modem" which can be connected to a single PC or through a wired or wireless network to multiple PCs. For a family that wants to use wireless both at home and on the road, $75 buys a "2 unit family plan package" with a wireless modem, a PC card and two user accounts.
Sitting with Chris in our hotel lobby, we installed the "Mobility Manager" software on our portable, plugged in Flarion's wireless PC card, and tried out the service. The installation was quick and easy, and we measured downlink speeds of about 1 Mbps and uplink speeds of about 200 kbps.
Of the three systems we tried during the trip, Flarion's is the only one specifically designed for mobility, with extensive investment in handling motion and making seamless hand-offs from one base station to another. After using the system in our hotel, Chris took us for a drive so that we had the opportunity to try out the service's mobile capabilities. While Chris was driving, we initially measured downlink speeds around 900 kbps and uplink speeds about 100 kbps; a little later, we saw downlink speeds fall to about 500 kbps -- still quite impressive. When Chris dropped us off at the RDU airport to head off on the next leg of our trip, we measured the lowest speeds of the day -- about 350 kbps; Chris said coverage at the airport wasn't as good as other places in the Triangle, since tall towers could not be built too close.
[Editor's note: The Sprint/Nextel merger announcement was made subsequent to our trip. While Nextel has been using Flarion's technology for mobile broadband wireless, Sprint had previously announced its plan to roll out its mobile data service using Qualcomm's EV-DO--the path Verizon has also chosen. What technology to use for mobile broadband wireless will be one of the many system compatibility and integration challenges that lie ahead for the combined company.]
Clearwire in Jacksonville
Since the last time we tried Clearwire's service in March 2003, almost everything about it has changed except the name and the spectrum being used. Clearwire was bought by Craig McCaw in April. In August 2004 they relaunched service in Jacksonville, using equipment from NextNet Wireless, also owned by McCaw. The first rollout had used equipment from IP Wireless.
When we expressed interest in the service and how it compares to fixed services such as cable and DSL, we were delighted to have Nate Stuart, a Clearwire sales representative, come to our daughter's house in Jacksonville and tell her why she and her friends might want to consider Clearwire for their broadband service. The field sales force brings a modem to a prospective customer's house so they can try the service under the conditions in which they will use it at home.
Clearwire has a range of offers, from 512kbps down/128kbps up to 1.5 Mbps/256kbps. Clearwire is not targeting mobile users; their current CPE consists of a comparatively large unit, which fits best with the surroundings of a desktop user. Indeed, two of their key target markets are the low-end home user who wants to switch their broadband service because it costs too much, and the dial-up customer who is willing to move to broadband if there isn't a big price differential. The selling point for their ClearValue offer at $24.99 a month is that it doesn't cost much more than dial-up--especially since they have a 3 month introductory offer for $9.99. Their highest price point offer is "ClearBusiness" which costs $65.99/month.
Clearwire offers a HomePlug wallmount Ethernet module (made by Asoka) to extend the service to other places in the house from where the modem is positioned to receive the best signal. This is a clever way to deliver on their promise of "broadband where you need it".
Jacksonville--the largest city in land area in the contiguous US--is not completely covered by Clearwire's equipment, currently situated at about 25 tower sites. They are broadening their local coverage by increasing the number of sites. Clearwire has already launched in more cities: on December 9th, service was launched in St Cloud MN and Abilene TX, and Clearwire's Web site indicates that Daytona Beach, FL is "coming soon".
Nate connected the modem to our notebook PC, and we ran some speed tests. Sitting in our daughter's dining room, we measured about 200 to 400 kbps downlink. Nate suggested we try closer to a window, so we moved the modem and the PC to the living room, where we measured 450 to 650 kbps down and about 130 kbps up. Nate used a tool on his PC to show us that we were about one mile from the nearest Clearwire tower, which has a 1.5 mile range.
The Clearwire service was slower and more variable than that offered by Flarion. However, despite the quantitative difference, streaming video (for example from BMWfilms.com) ran quite satisfactorily. This serves as a reminder that only techies like us go out and measure speeds--what counts for most users is the qualitative experience, not quantitative measures.
Municipal Wi-Fi in St Cloud, Florida
Extensive publicity about several municipal Wi-Fi projects--see for example our article on Philadelphia--has resulted in what seems like a "bandwagon" effect. The St. Cloud "Cyber Spot" project came to our attention when Jonathan Baltuch, who is deeply involved in the project implementation, contacted us. Jonathan is one of our readers and was kind enough to inform us about this project, which has been on the drawing boards for about 1 1/2 years.
This deployment is quite different in concept and implementation from the two discussed previously:
Dave visited St. Cloud and walked around for several hours, testing the service at many locations. He measured typical speeds of 1.0 to 1.3 Mbps down and 300 kbps up in the downtown coverage area and at the "gazebo" at the lakefront. Several blocks away from the designated service areas shown on the city web page, he measured about 300 kbps down. These speeds were measured outdoors, unlike the Triangle and Jacksonville measurements, since the objective of the Cyber Spot project is "to flood the outdoor areas with a strong signal."
The St. Cloud city council has approved the next phase of the broadband wireless project, which involves investigation of expanding Wi-Fi coverage city-wide. Jonathan expects they will have developed the business model and costs and bring it up for a vote before the city council in March 2005. If it goes as expected, the city wide project will be operational by summer 2005.
Our goal was to examine the three systems from a qualitative and user perspective. Here's a summary that captures some of the key similarities and differences.