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Fast Forward: Clear gives broadband users another option

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 11, 2010; G03

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.

Clear might want to loosen those restrictions, because even in allegedly sub-optimal coverage Clear was often an effective substitute for land-based broadband.

I realized this one evening when I looked at the WiFi icon on my computer's screen and realized I didn't know which wireless network I'd been using: the one relaying the Clear signal as received by a desktop home modem, or the other sharing my regular Fios connection.

Clear advertises download speeds of "up to 6 Mbps" (millions of bits per second) and uploads "up to 1 Mbps" with its $40 home service. A $30 Basic plan cuts download speeds to 1.5 Mbps. Those speeds compare well with Verizon's DSL but fall short of its Fios and cable-Internet service from companies such as Comcast and Cox.

The difference between Clear and competitors was easier to spot when uploading large files, easier still when I tried to watch sports at ESPN3.com (closed to Clear users), and easiest when I used the Speedtest.net site to measure Clear's speed.

That diagnostic site, run by the Kalispell, Mont.-based network-services firm Ookla, clocked Clear's downloads at 4.95 Mbps in four tries, with uploads averaging just 0.56 Mbps.

On a laptop with a USB receiver one block over in a "Best" coverage area, Clear accelerated to 6.94 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads.

Clear's mobile-use plans look less attractive than its home service. All the holes in its coverage make staying online on a train or bus impossible: The connection dropped three or four times between stations on a Metro ride from Ballston to Vienna. And Clear charges more for this privilege: Its On-the-Go plan costs $40 a month.

A $55 plan that adds 3G coverage constitutes a better value. It's $5 less than mobile-broadband service from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint (if $15 more than T-Mobile's less-wide-ranging service) and doesn't come with those carriers' 5-gigabyte usage caps.

Clear's Acceptable Usage Policy, however, contains an "Excessive Utilization of Network Resources" clause that allows it to throttle back the bandwidth of intensive users at peak times.

In a home or on the go, shopping for Clear service requires picking through a pointless proliferation of hardware.

Just want service in your house? Clear's site stocks three $84.99 modems (none of which include WiFi); two are touted as "easy-to-install," and the third is "actually easy to install." Need mobile service? You have a choice of four USB modems, two of which add 3G compatibility, at prices from $69.99 to $224.99.

Over the first week of use, Clear also suffered irritating breakdowns in a basic Internet feature, the Domain Name Service that directs your computer to other Internet sites. That malfunction since seems to have vanished.

A look through Clear's customer-support forums suggests other potential worries. Complaints there cover such issues as problems in Clear's Internet-calling service (a $15 or $20 add-on for home plans) and mysterious slowdowns or dropouts.

So you might not want to sign up yet for the long term. But you don't have to: Clear doesn't require contracts, and the only penalty for going month to month is the risk of eating the price of the modem and a $35 activation fee. That's one other reason to hope this company succeeds where other alternative broadband ventures have failed.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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