WiMAX Beats Wi-Fi (with a big stick!) in Mountain View Wireless Speed Test

September 15, 2010

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:


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:


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!

Google Instant = The Next Mobile Meltdown?

September 8, 2010

While Google’s new instant search feature certainly impressed many at the news conference in San Francisco Wednesday, the impending launch of Google Instant for mobile devices might be the next application that brings fragile cellular networks to their knees.

Why? Though we probably won’t know until thousands start using Google Instant on their cell phones, the application’s feature of guessing what you are typing may actually mean fewer mobile searches since theoretically you will find your answer faster. But with new results appearing with each letter typed, Google Instant may also cause a lot of unwanted traffic as servers, cell towers and handheld devices engage in constant communications to support the “instant” search results. Could all that search traffic clog mobile networks to the point of saturation? We don’t know for sure, and didn’t get any confident answers Wednesday to make us think that the Googlers have thought this through completely, either.

Google reps at the announcement Wednesday all acknowledged that Google Instant would certainly increase bandwidth needs for either mobile or landline connections, but also pointed out that search results were typically very small bits of information, especially when compared to things like streaming video. But the increased amount of connections needed could cause less-than-instant search-result slowdowns, especially in a mobile situation. In demos of the mobile version (which Google said won’t be available for a month or more), there was a noted latency of a few seconds’ delay when compared to the desktop/laptop version of the program.

Google VP for search Marissa Mayer admitted that some beta testers of the service had to turn it off in cases where their broadband connection wasn’t good, and Google reps at the event said that it (obviously) would work better on Wi-Fi, OK on a 3G connection and not at all on “2G” wireless like AT&T’s EDGE network. Though Googlers Wednesday didn’t think the instant searches would cause someone to burn up their mobile data cap while looking for a nearby restaurant, the mobile version will come with a handy “off” button — just in case.

End of Net Neutrality? The Real Battle is Just Beginning

April 6, 2010

Given that the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals today smacked down the FCC’s ham-handed attempt to impose net neutrality rules on Comcast from a couple years ago, it’s no surprise that many folks are proclaiming this to be the end of net neutrality and a blow to the Obama administration’s telecom plans.

They should know better.

All this does is mark the start of the real battle for not just net neutrality, but for control over matters broadband and beyond.

In reality, today’s decision is probably a somewhat welcome one for the Julius Genachowski-led FCC and the Obama telecom troops, since it officially removes the taint of questionable decisions led by former FCC chairman Kevin Martin from the net neutrality debate. Martin, the friend of big telcos like AT&T and Verizon, ostensibly presided over the implementation of the net neutrality “principles” back in 2005 and then the Comcast case itself. But being by all accounts a very smart guy, Martin is probably laughing out loud somewhere now, knowing that his tactics and decisions probably got the end goal he and his backers truly wanted — mass confusion around net neutrality and the FCC’s role in adjucating it.

Though we’ve sort of been off the policy beat lately, I remember asking lots of insiders about the Comcast decision after it was initially passed, and even the most pro-net neutrality types all thought it would eventually be overturned like it was today. “Good result, bad process” was the way one net neut proponent summed up the original FCC ruling. Good call.

But since Obama’s election, Genachowski and other administration types have been busy looking well beyond the Comcast case, putting in motion not only a separate net neutrality proceeding, but also developing the recently released national broadband plan, which if executed as described will go a long ways toward making net neutrality principles part of everyday regulatory practices — not by trying to define the slippery idea of net neutrality itself but by implementing a raft of actual measurable, enforceable things like truth in broadband-speed advertising and transparency in network management practices.

Should the broadband plan’s metrics-based ideas come to pass, network service providers would have a hard time hiding the kind of dubious practices that got Comcast in hot water in the first place. And just like with the health care bill, Obama and the Democrats probably have all the votes they need right now to pass new net neutrality regulations should they so desire — in fact insiders we have talked to in the big telco camps fully expect that some sort of net neutrality regulation will appear before the end of the year. But that also means they’re gearing up to fight it, if for no other reason than to keep the nuns safe from Google.

We digress. Clearly there is much more still to happen, and we’ll be watching while it does. But the end of net neutrality? In reality, a much bigger battle for the ultimate control of the nation’s networks has just begun.