Now that Clearwire and Sprint have apparently picked up the pace on delivering more places where you can access the partners’ WiMAX wireless broadband service (including Nashville, Tenn., as of Wednesday), we decided to take the connectivity toys Clearwire has lent us and do an ad-hoc comparison of connectivity speeds, pitting Clearwire’s 4G service against the free Wi-Fi offered by Starbucks.
First, some caveats: The WiMAX service in Silicon Valley is part of Clearwire’s innovation network, and not a true commercial service like that now available in 53 markets around the country. But with the company’s announcement this week that services may be rolled out as towers come online, we thought it fair game to see how the down-Peninsula network was holding up. Our testing spot of choice was the Starbucks outlet in Charleston Plaza, a prefab big-box mall with an REI outlet and a pet store. While not scenic the Starbucks nevertheless had a nice selection of outdoor tables, one of which we took over for our Tuesday afternoon speed-comparison extravaganza.
First up for testing was the Clear Spot 4G+ Personal Hotspot, on loan from Clearwire. This device is the Clearwire-branded version of the Overdrive pocketspot that Sierra Wireless first built for Sprint, an incredibly handy device that automagically will connect to the Sprint 3G network if WiMAX isn’t available. Here in Mountain View, we know we’re fairly close to the 4G towers Clearwire put in near Google’s campus which is just the other side of 101. It works by grabbing a WiMAX (or 3G) signal on the back end, and then broadcasting broadband in a personal Wi-Fi “cloud” to as many as five other devices. After a quick stop at a splash screen to register the device we were off and running, zooming past 4 Mbps on the download and getting about 500 Kbps on the upload.
Next we turned off the Clear Spot and searched our available Wi-Fi networks list for the Starbucks Wi-Fi (which was listed as AT&T, and apparently was one of the former Wayport hotspots). After logging in and clicking away from the latte-flavored Starbucks content screen, we tested the Wi-Fi connection and found it adequate (and even better on the uplink), but nowhere close to the Clear Spot link for download speeds:
STARBUCKS/AT&T WI-FI TEST:
While we were searching wireless networks, we saw an unsecured link advertised as Google Wi-Fi — probably a remnant of the Wi-Fi network Google built for its corporate hometown. (Since the Starbucks was next to a Chipolte outlet, maybe Googlers pushed for a nearby connection so they could stay on the net while they grabbed an off-campus burrito.) Whatever the reason, the Google Wi-Fi was a little faster that the Starbucks link, but nowhere near the Clear Spot for download speed:
Next we turned off the Wi-Fi antenna and inserted a USB modem also lent to us by the folks at Clearwire (an older CMU-300 model built by Franklin Wireless) that can connect to either 3G or 4G services. Sidecut readers may have seen us put this device through some earlier tests when the Silicon Valley network was just getting off the ground. Anyway, the question of what service you want if speed matters was answered pretty quickly. We’ll let the numbers to the talking:
CLEARWIRE USB MODEM TEST:
We also did a test on the Sprint 3G service available from the USB modem, and it tested out at 1.31 Mbps for the download and ~500 Kbps for the upload, comparable to Wi-Fi.
Overall, it’s pretty amazing sometimes when you stop and think of all the broadband choices that may be available to you in any given location. (We are guessing that AT&T and Verizon most likely have 3G data services available in the area, though we are also guessing that their speeds would be the functional equivalent of Sprint’s 3G network.) But it’s also clear even from our completely non-scientific little test that there is a leap of magnitude in going from existing technologies to the 4G wireless services just now hitting the airwaves. As we say, let the testing begin!