Review: Clear's WiMAX Network in Portland, OR

By Michael Hall

May 08, 2009

Portland, OR resident Michael Hall takes Clear's new WiMAX network out for a spin. The verdict? Better than DSL.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated.

I’ve known for a while that there’s nothing like a move to cause one to reassess old habits, but it wasn’t until just this month that I ever thought of DSL as a habit. Then again, I’ve always lived in areas well served by broadband providers. This time around, though, not only did I find myself moving to a location where DSL coverage isn’t so good, but a newer kind of wireless broadband called “WiMAX” has come to town, offering few enough strings to make it worth trying out.

WiMAX has been around for a few years and it has seen a lot of use in Asian markets, but in the United States it’s still largely a regional phenomenon, with nationwide deployments still pending. WiMAX is interesting for several reasons:

  1. It’s wireless, so there’s no need to depend on laying new line or wiring up a building.
  2. It offers specifications for mobile and fixed use, so an ISP can provision its customers with hardware to handle both kinds of use instead of relying on separate wired/wireless infrastructure.
  3. WiMAX base stations can provide service to end points many miles away (though there’s a tradeoff in speed as distances increase).

WiMAX became interesting to me when I moved from one end of Portland, Oregon to another and found that the CO (central office) for my new house was a distant 11,000 feet away. My family isn’t the most bandwidth-hungry group on the block, but between our normal Web surfing, VoIP phone service, and a Roku Netflix player we brought home at Christmas, we’ve found ourselves straining at the 3Mbps leash DSL imposed on us. At our new house, we learned, we’d be lucky to get 3Mbps connections, and even then we’d lose speed on our uplink.

Learning that DSL wasn’t going to cut it set off a flurry of phone calls to other providers. Our only other choice was going with a cable connection, but we’ve dealt with Comcast in the past and didn’t care to repeat the experience.

All in all, it was a pretty distressing situation: I’ve been a DSL customer with one provider or another since 1998. DSL has its problems, but I’ve always lived close enough to a CO to get good, fast download speeds, and I’ve generally found DSL to be as reliable as the local power grid, with fewer than a dozen outages over the past 11 years.

Enter Clear

Late last year, Portland came under marketing assault by Clear, the marketing name for Clearwire Corporation, which has received investments from a number of big names in the tech industry, including Intel, Sprint, and Google. A number of Clear stores opened up, each seemingly marketed independently of the others though they all use the same logos and copy on their flyers.

“Marketing assault” might be too gentle a term. I found leaflets in my neighborhood donut shop, shoved into newspaper boxes, tucked under doorknobs, stuck under windshield wipers, and handed out by roving teams of Clear representatives. There are a number of bus stop benches, billboards, and signs around town that read “This isn’t a bus stop [or billboard, or parking space]” that go on to explain it’s actually a place you could use Clear’s mobile service.

The thrust of most of the marketing material is the mobile side of Clear’s business, which promises up to 4Mbps connection speeds in three monthly pricing tiers:

  • $30 per month for up to 200MB of data, $10 per gigabyte of data over 200MB
  • $40 per month for up to 2GB of data, $10 per gigabyte of data over 2GB.
  • $50 per month for unlimited data

Signing up for a two-year contract will earn a waiver on the $35 setup fee, and there are combinations of mobile and residential service that allow for reductions in the monthly cost, as well.

The residential offering doesn’t involve data caps, but is instead tiered by speed:

  • $20 per month for 786Kbps download/128Kbps upload speed
  • $30 per month for 3Mbps download/384Kbps upload speed
  • $40 per month for 6Mbps download/512Kbps upload speed

There’s also a $4.99 monthly equipment fee if you don’t opt to buy the Clear modem. For customers who take a two-year contract, Clear waives the $35 setup fee.

For another $25 per month, Clear offers a voice service with a number of free options, including voice mail, caller ID, selective call forwarding, selective call blocking, e-mail access to voice mail and a Web management tool for all the features. Like any other carrier, Clear offers number portability, too. Telephony is a natural add-on for Clear, since the WiMAX specification includes provisions for voice QoS.

Clear is just new enough, and the existing reviews of the service are just vague enough, that I wasn’t interested in signing up for a two-year contract. Instead, I opted to pay the $35 setup fee in case Clear failed to deliver on the promised 6Mbps connection, so I could order cable and get a bit more speed for more money (and the pain of Comcast customer “support”).

Clear setup

Signing up with Clear was a five-minute-long process that involved little more than providing a credit card number and an address so the agent could prequalify the location, since some parts of the broader metro area aren’t covered yet. The equipment for my installation arrived the next morning

I’ve been through five DSL installations over the past ten years, which means I’ve spent five mornings or afternoons waiting for someone from the telco to arrive “between 8 and noon” or “between 1 and 5” to connect my demarc box to the outside world with varying degrees of efficiency. Consequently, it was with mild giddiness that I realized the arrival of the Clear equipment was all I needed to get going with my new connection.

“The Clear equipment” is pretty simple stuff: A black, rectangular box with five lights along the top and a swiveling stand that allows it to either stand alone or be mounted on a window or wall with an optional suction-cup/adhesive strip kit.

Because it always makes sense to reduce the number of things that can go wrong, I decided to connect the Clear box directly to my computer (a MacBook) before dragging routers or switches into the equation. The setup instructions came on a glossy sheet of paper folded up booklet-style and involving exactly three steps:

  1. Plug the Clear box into the wall.
  2. Plug the Clear box into your computer (or wired/wireless router/access point)
  3. Turn on your computer.

Having so few steps confused me rather badly, to the point I carefully unfolded the little booklet to make sure there weren’t more instructions lurking around. By the time I decided there were no more instructions, the five green lights on the top of the Clear box had stopped blinking, which meant it had a fix on a signal and considered itself connected to the Internet. I opened a Web browser and tried to load a page, which it did. That was it. I was done. The Clear box acts as a DHCP server, so it handled giving my laptop an IP address and telling it which DNS servers to use.

Connecting the Clear box to either a Buffalo Wi-Fi router running DD-WRT or an Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n base station worked just as smoothly once they were configured to use DHCP for their WAN connections and provide DHCP for my computers.

Clear in use

Ease of setup is nice, and it definitely felt liberating to skip the 7-10 day waiting period DSL installations can entail, but none of that would count for much if the service didn’t deliver. So for the first few days I had Clear running I paid close attention to several usage scenarios:

  • basic Web browsing
  • large downloads
  • simultaneous use of devices sharing the local wireless network, including our Roku box and other computers
  • media streaming from other sources, including an online pay-per-view event and Hulu.

Browsing was as responsive and quick as it seemed it should be for the promised speed, downloads routinely arrived at or just above the promised 6Mbps connection speed, and when we used the Roku in combination with browsing or downloads, it connected at the maximum quality (3Mbps) with plenty of bandwidth to spare for other activities. My five-year-old son got his streaming Spongebob episodes, I got anything else I could think of.

For streaming media from things besides the Roku (laptops streaming Hulu and a pay-per-view event from Yahoo Sports), the connection was smooth and skip/stutter free over hours of continuous viewing.

I also ran tests using speedtest.net and the Speakeasy Speed Test, which offer basic reports on upload/download speeds and connection latency. The connection generally tested between 5.5 and 6Mbps, with occasional spikes to 6.5Mbps and occasional, rare dips to 3.6Mbps. Latency was generally reported at 80-90ms for tests involving servers in Portland or Seattle. Since speedtest.net keeps track of test results for a given IP address, and since my Clear IP address remained the same during the time I was testing my connection, I was able to check out my history and come up with some numbers:

  • Average Download Speed: 5.7Mbps
  • Median Download Speed: 5.775Mbps
  • Highest Speed: 6.75Mbps
  • Lowest Speed: 3.63Mbps

Since we’re on the tail end of Portland’s legendary rainy season, I got a few days of heavy rain and wind that might help serve as a clue to how well the wireless technology holds up in adverse weather: Speeds were consistently in the 5-6Mbps range on those days, too.

The first few days I tested, I did so with the Clear box in a second floor office window, as recommended in the installation guide. After a day or two I moved it across the room and against an interior wall, but the speeds I was noting didn’t change appreciably. I did, however, have to turn the unit 90 degrees to get it to go from showing three or four lights signal strength to a full five. Against the inside wall, it occasionally drops down to four lights, but there’s no noticeable change in speed when that happens.

Because Clear is a wireless service, it’s sensitive to distance from a WiMAX antenna. In the case of its Portland deployment, Clear is promising a little less than it can deliver in optimal conditions: Before I was completely moved into my new house I tried Clear out at my old location just three blocks away from an array of WiMAX antennas mounted on a water tower. Sitting that close to the antennas, with such a direct line of sight, speedtest.net regularly reported 6.5-7Mbps connections.

The takeaway from all this is that Clear, when compared to cable or DSL, isn’t perfectly consistent, even if it does seem to perform within a reliable range. Considering the range it does work within, and considering my usage patterns, it’s well within the bounds of acceptable performance.

Wrapping up

Before I placed my order for Clear I looked around for other reviews. Because it’s a new service (Clear launched in Portland in January, and its sister service in Baltimore launched in late 2008), there wasn’t much. A local reporter said speeds varied a bit depending on his location in town, which is to be expected. Local bloggers have reported that the greater Portland metro area has some dead spots, too, particularly in the southeast.

In anticipation of this sort of variability, something one might reasonably expect from a wireless service, Clear offers a seven-day trial period. That’s plenty of time to get a sense of how consistent the connection is and whether it’s delivering the promised speed. If you live in an area that’s underserved by traditional broadband providers and you’d like more speed eventually, you can pay $35 up front and walk away any time. In the mean time, if you move to a new house or apartment, reinstallation is as simple as unplugging your Clear modem and plugging it back in elsewhere.

The two things about Clear’s products I can’t report on are the mobile service (the USB modem doesn’t work with Macs) and the voice service (which I have, but haven’t yet tested very thoroughly). I’ll be back in a few weeks with some notes on Clear’s voice service, and whether it’s an adequate replacement for a traditional landline.

Article courtesy of PracticallyNetworked.com.

Update:: Based on information received from a Clear representative, this article originally noted that Oregon law required a longer return policy. We've since heard from Clear customers and employees who have reported conflicting information. Readers should assume that Clear's 7-day trial period applies to the service and plan accordingly when evaluating the service. We regret any confusion.



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