Here in Portland Oregon we are lucky enough to be one of the first two markets in the country to get 4G wireless service (WiMax from ClearWire aka Clear).
It’s interesting, that they have opened a number of retail stores with a distinct consumer feel (and certainly with expensive high foot traffic rent), despite the fact that WiMax is probably more of a Business to Business solution at the moment. WiMax claims download speeds of 6Mbps and upload speeds of up to 1Mbps, although like most wireless technologies your actual speed is highly dependant on coverage. At my office out in the suburbs of Portland, I get good coverage and 5Mbps downloads, but in my 4th floor condo in the heart of the downtown Pearl district, I barely get coverage at all, and when I do it’s slower than my AT&T 3G broadband card. Clear promises that they are adding more access points in my neighborhood, and that the dense, tall buildings are a challenge for the relatively directional WiMax signals. They have a variety of rate plans ranging from pay as you go, to $50/mo for unlimited mobile usage, which is the plan I have.
Anyway, this week Clear came out with a new toy, the Clear Spot. This is a batter powered WiMax to WiFi router/hub that allows you to share your Clear connection with other WiFi users. In theory, this is pretty cool… plug your WiMax USB modem into the battery powered, small form-factor hub, and you start broadcasting a WiFi signal that your laptop, IPhone, X-Box, etc… can all use. And since it is portable, you can easily use it at the coffee shop, your car, etc… So being the early adopter that I am, I grabbed one up for $139.
It works exactly as promised, configuration is very easy. You can set it up with password protected access, add WEP or PKA Personal security, it passes through VPN and every other service I’ve thrown at it.
But my initial reactions are a bit disappointing. First of all it charges with a proprietary charger vs. a standard USB connector (so I’ll need to buy two extra AC chargers to throw in my travel kit and office, and a DC charger for my car). The proprietary charger is 5v (which is what USB uses), but it’s 2.5A which is more juice than a standard USB charger, so in theory it would charge more slowly if they used a USB charger. Since this uses a mobile phone style Li-Ion battery, it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have adopted a USB charging standard.
My next disappointment came when I learned that it would only work with my Clear modem and not my AT&T USB Connect Mercury modem. In fairness, neither Clear nor the hardware manufacturer, Cradlepoint, promised that it would, but the Clear Spot is just a rebranded Cradlepoint PHS-300 which does work with my AT&T modem. Basically if you buy the Cradlepoint branded version you get AT&T compatibility, and if you buy the Clear branded version you get Clear compatibility. Cradlepoint promises to support WiMax directly in some products, but apparently the marketing gods decided to intentionally cripple this particular hardware, because that always makes for a great customer experience. I sent an e-mail to Cradlepoint tech support, and they responded that the latest firmware could be downloaded from the website which would make it work with both modems, but that turned out to be erroneous information. I then sat on hold with tech support for 45 minutes (they weren’t kidding about average hold times being over 30 minutes), and had a customer service representative confirm that the Clear version of the product can’t be used with the AT&T modem.
Since currently clear doesn’t have coverage anywhere but Portland, and since I can’t use my nationwide AT&T modem with the Clear Spot, at least I won’t have the invest in the travel accessories for the Clear Spot. Come on Clear, this could have been a really cool product.