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Clearwire – Bandwidth in a Box – Goodbye Verizon?

Executive Summary
I upgraded my house to Clearwire today and I want to tell you all about it. Its so good that it may become my primary connection. This wasn’t a planned upgrade, so I’ll have to start with a little background story…

Background Story
My Verizon DSL cut out without warning today. I wasn’t surprised that it happened, actually. The original DSL connection to our house dated back to early 1998, shortly after we moved to Sammamish from Potomac, Maryland. It was so old, in fact, that Verizon actually had difficult decommisioning it in order to upgrade it to a newer system that was both faster and cheaper. The DSL was on a second, “business” line that we no longer needed, which was costing us a few bucks per month. In late October I called Verizon and requested that they relocate the DSL from the second line to our primary home line. Turns out that they don’t have a simple, non-disruptive, consumer-friendly way to do this. Instead, they arranged to decommission the DSL on the business line and simultaneously provision the home line. I told the phone clerk that internet access was mission critical for me, and that any disruption would be very, very bad. She assured me that the entire change would be painless and that I wouldn’t even need to move the DSL modem to the other phone line (this didn’t compute).

So today the connection stops working. Checked all of the usual stuff, looked fine. Called Verizon, talked to a guy named Ahmet, and he was pretty sure that I had to plug the modem into the other line. Tried this, nothing worked. Around this time my sinuses kind of flared up, I got a terrible headache, and turned things over to my very capable son Stephen.

Stephen called them back and they worked through all sorts of things. Stephen dutifully tried all sorts of non-sensical things including plugging the modem into several different phone jacks, installing the DSL filters on the other phones, and even trying a shorter phone cord (as Stephen laughingly related to me later, this doesn’t take into account the fact that most of the wire is in the wall (or in the ground for that matter), and that the cord length can’t possibly make a difference). After trying everything they filed a trouble ticket and promised to call back next Tuesday to schedule a service call. I wasn’t too happy about this.

I had seen the Clearwire kiosk downtown earlier this year, and gave it some thought. Stephen was out running some errands, and he stopped by the local Cartridge World franchise — they are agents for Clearwire. He collected all the relevant details and called me up. I thought about it and decided that we simply couldn’t be disconnected for 3 or more days. At the time I was thinking that I would use Clearwire as a temporary backup, possibly even cancelling it when my DSL line came back to life. Stephen came back home and we chatted about it for a bit and decided to do it.

At the Store
Stephen and I hopped into our trusty Suburban and drove the 2 miles or so to the Cartridge World. Lorrie, the store manager, helped us through the process. I filled out a sheet with my name, address, and credit card info, and she entered it into her PC. I was originally planning to get the low-end (768 Kbps) plan, but on the spur of the moment went for the better (1.5 Mbps) plan, thinking that I could benchmark it against my similarly rated DSL. After not very long at all we were back in the car with our modem. Driving home, we decided to blog the entire experience, since I haven’t read any other reviews of the service. We also talked about how we would tie it into our home network (6 or 7 PCs, a couple of printers, and two wireless laptops). Luckily, I had a Linksys WRT54G lying around and ready to be pressed back into service.

Several different service plans are available, with options for length of term, connection speed, some email addresses, some web storage, and even some static IP addresses. I opted for the one-year contract (with an eight day cancellation privilege). I pay $36.99 for the service, $4.99 for the modem rental, and a final 44 cents in tax for a grand total of $42.42 per month. The first three months are discounted by $17 per month, and there was a $50 activation charge. I could have gotten a slightly better deal if I had gone for a longer term.

At Home
We got home and ran upstairs, eager to see how quickly we could get our new connection up and running. We did stop to take some pictures, though! Here’s the box:


We opened it up with care. Inside we found the Clearwire modem, some documentation, a power supply, and an Ethernet cable:


Lorrie had warned up to plug in the modem and to wait 5 minutes before plugging in the computer. Reading the directions, it turns out that the modem takes a while to tune itself for the signal. The top of the model contains a row of 5 green LEDs. The LEDs blink while the modem is seeking a signal, and then show a value between 1 and 5 once the signal is acquired. We were also directed to rotate the modem on its vertical axis to find the spot where the most LEDs were lit! Here’s the cute little modem all by itself:


So we plugged it in and watched those lights blink for a while. At first we had just one green light and I was getting a bit worried. We are situated in a second floor home office with lots of metal, and a few walls between the office and the outside world. Stephen carefully rotated the modem and found a spot where we got 3 LEDs, and then made a permanent mark on the shelf to avoid future disorientation.

I plugged in my Amazon laptop, poked through the VPN, and we were up and running. I ran a DSL speed test and saw that I was getting about 1 Mbps through the VPN. Not bad, but I was hoping for more. I surfed around a bit and it seemed to be working really, really well.

Stephen and his friend ran out to buy a Beatles wig for a party, and when he returned we got the Linksys router up and running, configured its DHCP, and refreshed the DHCP leases on each of our networked PCs. They all worked fine, except for mine. Months earlier I had installed a cool little application called Fastcache and I had a hunch that it was getting in the way. Rather than figure it out, I simply uninstalled it, fixed my TCP/IP settings to use DHCP to locate the DNS server, and rebooted. This worked just fine.

So, how’s it work? Here are the Speakeasy DSL speed test results to their Seattle server:


Impressive enough, and definitely competitive with my DSL. Subjectively, I am about 85% sure that Clearwire has substantially less latency. Connecting to web sites just seems a whole lot faster. Repeatedly saving draft copies of this blog (where there’s no need to use DNS) is definitely faster.

I’m blown away by this new technology. So far it looks like a real winner. It is awe-inspiring to think of those million or so bits flying through the air every second via the modem just a foot or two from my head. As Stephen and I were waiting for the modem to train, we thought back to our earliest home network in 1995. We started out with Prodigy, and then used an O’Reilly product called Internet in a Box to connect to a real ISP. From there we used Windows NT 3.51 and RAS to serve 4 PCs over a 9600 baud modem connection. We’ve gone from “Internet in a Box” to “Broadband in a Box” in little more than a decade.

I had previously heard that Clearwire allowed only a select set of ports but this is emphatically not the case at all. My VPN works fine, and Second Life just flies. Once again, subjectively, it feels faster than DSL.

The modem is now showing 4 LEDs instead of 3, the service is getting better! I should probably clean up the cabling my entire office a bit, though:


So, the next question — do I still need my Verizon DSL? I’m not sure that I do.

I will let them fix it, but it will be the backup service for the next month or two. If Clearwire stays running, I’m going to seriously consider cancelling the Verizon service. I probably agreed to a contract extension when I had them switch lines, but I’m pretty sure that bringing up the fact that they totally flubbed it will count in my favor.

When I first heard about Clearwire earlier this year, I asked them about a PCMCIA card. At that time they told me that it would be available in Q1 of 2007. Today we heard that it was still a long way from production. Given the directional sensitivity of the modem, this comes as no big surprise. They would need to use some kind of active antenna to deal with portable use, or else have a little rotating popup antenna (that would be much, much cooler of course).

More news, if any, as this develops.