A Sneak Preview Of WiMAX

Image having Net access almost anywhere


If you're forty something or older, like me, you probably remember the thrill of getting your first home dial-up connection to the Net. Then came broadband, which was pure magic. And then Wi-Fi, which delivered fast Web access throughout the home, as well as in cafés and airport lounges. Now I'm completely spoiled. I want my Internet wherever I happen to be.

An emerging technology called WiMAX aims to indulge that craving. It will eventually provide Web browsing speeds many times faster than Wi-Fi and a gigantic range that will keep you permanently connected to the Net--at home, in your car, in a city park, or on the beach. The new WiMAX standard won't be ready for prime time until early next year. But you can get a taste of what's coming if you sign up with Clearwire, a Bellevue (Wash.) startup from Craig McCaw that's available in 43 markets including Seattle, where I live. This WiMAX-lite service is disappointing in some ways. But Clearwire will start upgrading subscribers to the real thing next year, and it is also planning to roll out a nationwide WiMAX network in a joint venture with Sprint Nextel (S ). If it addresses a few early glitches, it's bound to have tremendous appeal.

TO USE CLEARWIRE'S CURRENT SERVICE (ranging from $30 to $50 a month), you just set up a nine-inch-high modem and plug it into the Ethernet jack on your PC. This one box is all you need for full Net access--say goodbye to DSL or cable-modem charges and wires--and it will work anywhere in the city, as long as you have a power outlet for the modem. No more searching for a Wi-Fi hotspot: The signals are everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere. In this proto-WiMAX system, there are dark spots, and my home at the bottom of a gully, surrounded by hills, trees, and other houses, happens to be in one. A row of five lights on top of the modem indicates signal strength, and the best I've ever gotten at home is two out of five. Two lights turns out to be fine for e-mailing and other basic tasks. But video and graphics-rich Web sites are sluggish, so check with Clearwire before making a commitment.

Things picked up when I tested the technology at work on the 19th floor of a Seattle office building. I got five lights out of five, and the experience was just like surfing the Web on my high-speed cable connection at home. Out of the dark zone, Clearwire was fast enough for me to catch episodes of the British car show Top Gear on YouTube (GOOG ) and listen to a buddy's guitar music on MySpace (NWS ). And I had no problem using Clearwire's voice-over-Internet phone service, which carries an additional monthly charge. There has been some subscriber grumbling about Clearwire's restricting network speed for heavy users during peak hours, but I haven't had that problem.

The next step was to take Clearwire around town. This is a bit of a nuisance because you have to lug the modem with you and find a power outlet--or purchase a separate car adapter and a 12-oz. battery pack.

I didn't bother with that. Instead, I took my gear to a nearby Starbucks (SBUX ), plugged it in, and enjoyed surfing the Web without having to pay the usual Wi-Fi fee. I did have to tweak the settings on my laptop to turn off the radio that receives wireless signals so it would default to the Clearwire service--but that's not a big deal. And in the next few months, Clearwire will sell a card that slips into a laptop to receive its signal, so you won't need to tote the modem.

Clearwire isn't all it can be, especially if you live in a dark zone. But for folks who want to get out from under their cable or telephone company, it offers a dependable alternative that will get much better when real WiMAX finally arrives.

Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Jay Greene

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.