One Week Using Clear 4G In Las Vegas

I spent last week in Las Vegas working through the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual convention. This was my 18th NAB convention. It’s my one annual trek to the desert.

This time I took advantage of the time in Las Vegas to try Clear‘s newly launched 4G network. Fellow VoIP blogger Andy Abramson connected me with people at Cheetah Wireless, a Clear reseller, who offered a special price on the short term rental of a 3G/4G USB dongle. Since recently launched 4G service in Houston I was especially interested to see how it differed from the 3G service that I’ve had via the Sprint Mifi these past months.

This is interesting on two levels; I’m curious about 3G vs 4G performance, and also using a USB dongle vs the Mifi style hotspot device.

Let me start out by saying that Cheetah Wireless are a pleasure to deal with. They dropped the USB dongle at the Las Vegas Convention Center where I was working on the setup of our booth. Then a week later they arranged to pickup the device from the front desk of my hotel. The process was completely painless.

Once I had the USB dongle I only had to install a simple driver from CD. In less than 10 minutes I was on the 4G wireless network. Too easy.

The hotel we were staying at offered free wired and wireless internet access. However, as is often the case, it was worth about the asking price under most conditions. It was so poorly back-hauled that most of my associates found it near useless in the morning and evening when conventioneers were checking their email and surfing the web.

Further, as a member of the Intercontinental Hotels Group this property used the SuperClick internet access management service. If I may be blunt….SuperClick blows..and should be avoided if at all possible. They have been known to track user habits for the purpose of targeting ads, but who knows what they really do with that data?

Were it not for the 4G service I would have been using my 3G Sprint Mifi in any case. The hotel connectivity was simply not going to cut it.

Once I had the dongle installed and running I tried a reliable speed test and found the following results:

That was actually the very best 4G result that I measured all week. To establish a baseline I also checked my Sprint 3G wireless service.

Here’s a summary of my speed test results over the week.

Company Service Date Downstream (Mb/s) Upstream (Mb/s)
Clear 4G 4/10/2010 2.01 1.42
Clear 4G 4/10/2010 2.60 0.43
Clear 4G 4/15/2010 1.88 1.52
Clear 4G 4/15/2010 4.20 1.68
Sprint 3G 4/15/2010 1.92 0.52
Sprint 3G 4/16/2010 1.20 0.29
Sprint 3G 4/16/2010 1.20 0.36

I tried speed tests to various locations. It was interesting to note that the 4G connection showed me a located in or near Bellingham, Washington. I guess that Clear was back-hauling their wireless network to a wired link in the Northwest.

Late in the week I was handed a DVD-R with 900 MB of customer files and asked if I could upload it to our ftp server in the UK. Uploading to our server in the UK proved unworkable. The connection at the far end was too busy/slow, which resulted in a projected 12 hours of upload. If it takes that long then there’s a good chance that some kind of hiccup along the way is going to stop the file transfer.

Instead I decided to upload the file set to a GoDaddy server at Online File Folder. From there I could email a download link to our associates in the UK. That server in the GoDaddy facility is on a very fast connection, making my local access the limiting factor in the transfer. The file uploaded successfully one evening in about two hours over the 4G connection.

At $13.95/day the 4G service is priced about the same as ‘net access from a high-end hotel. The fact that it worked on the trade show floor as well as at the hotel was an added bonus. The single file transfer of customer material, and the option to not send the DVD-R via Fedex, easily covered the cost of the 4G service for the week.

I didn’t try using a soft phone to make voice calls over the 4G. My level of activity through NAB simply precluded such experimentation. Ping times in the speed tests suggested that voice calls over 4G would be at least as good as calling over 3G data, which I’ve done with the Mifi device.

My weeks experience with the Clear 4G service is that it averages about twice as fast as 3G service. This is most notable in the upstream bandwidth where it is often several times faster.

In fact, the 4G service was sufficiently robust that I’m recommending to my employer that in 2011 we not order wired internet service from Smart City, the access provider in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Their access rates are essentially a form of extortion. Clear is the obvious alternative as long as the service levels remain high.

I’m left pondering my use of the Mifi device. The USB dongle was in this short test case more convenient than the hotspot type device. This for the simple reason that I didn’t need to worry about charging it. It draws power from the host PC. Of course, I wasn’t needing to share the connection, which is the major attraction of the pocket hotspot.

With the Mifi I remain limited to Sprint’s 3G service and its associated 5 GB/mo transfer cap. I’ve never exceeded 5 GB/mo so it’s not yet proved a problem. However, since some of the places I frequent (Chicago, Philly, Houston) are now lit up with Clear 4G there may be justification in my purchase of 3G/4G hardware some time in the coming months.

Many thanks to Andy Abramson for connecting me with Cheetah Wireless. My experience dealing with them was excellent. Highly recommended.