Fast Forward: Clear gives broadband users another option

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 11, 2010

In much of the United States, ordering broadband Internet access is a binary decision.

Either you buy it from the local cable-TV monopoly or you get it from the local phone monopoly. It's one or the other:

A or B.

Don't like those options? You can poke along with dial-up access, spend more on slow but limited mobile-broadband service, or spend far more on even slower and more limited satellite access.

Customers in the Washington area and a few dozen other cities, however, now have a third option -- a wireless service, Clear (http://clear.com), as fast as many entry-level broadband plans but no more expensive than most of them.

This comes from Kirkland, Wash.-based Clearwire and uses a wireless technology called WiMax, which Sprint also employs in its new 4G service. (Sprint once planned to launch a home WiMax service under the spell-check-defying moniker "Xohm" before punting that venture to Clearwire.)

Judging from a few weeks of testing Clear's service on receivers lent by its PR agency, this service could finally be that third way to the Internet sought by frustrated broadband buyers.

That's "could," not "will."

Clear's first potential hang-up is its spotty coverage, more fishnet than Swiss cheese.

The maps on its site show its signal blinking on and off block by block -- the stretch of 15th Street NW changes from no coverage to coverage to "Best" coverage just between L and M streets. If you measure distance in miles instead of blocks, Clear's mostly inside-the-Beltway service probably won't work.

Those differences matter: Clear won't sell you home service unless your address falls under that "Best" category. My home did when I began this test, after which Clear's marketing machinery sent a letter to my wife. The letter, helpfully labeled "This is not junk mail," invited her to sign up.

Yet somehow its map places our house outside its prime coverage area.


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