Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is "Mobile Broadband" Really Broadband?

A year ago I moved to Northport, Maine and built a house where once my parents had an egg farm. The house sits in a broadband "hole", unfortunately. 

Several services are just out of reach.  We are about a mile beyond the range of FairPoint DSL.  Time-Warner has not seen fit to venture into town.  Fixed Wireless providers Blue Streak and Mid-Coast Internet both provide service in the vicinity.  We can't "see" their transmit antennas because of trees, unfortunately.  There is a point 500 feet away from the house where an antenna could be mounted.  Neither firm, however, will work with me to contrive some sort of ethernet repeater arrangement that gets the signal to the house.

So, the choices are satellite internet and Mobile Broadband from Verizon, the only cell provider that covers this area with high speed service.  Due to the higher start-up cost and reports of high latency and perhaps slower transmission on the satellite side, we went with Mobile Broadband.  I made a two-year service commitment and paid $50 for a little USB modem through which one connects to the Verizon EV-DO high-speed network.  This is a "3G" or "third generation" service.

To provide connectivity to the multiple PCs in the house I purchased a CradlePoint 3G wi-fi router.  An 18" outdoor antenna goes to the modem which is inserted in the USB port of the router.  Devices attach to the router wirelessly in some cases and by ethernet cable in others.  In terms of reliability, troubleshooting, etc. the setup is virtually the same as for DSL. Plus, when we travel I can take the EV-DO modem along and use it in my laptop.

I am torn.  On the one hand, I really like the service.  It is not super speedy -- 700 to 800 kbps down and 400 kbps or so up.  DSL at our former house in Bangor was sometimes twice that.  Nor is it super cheap -- $59.99 per month, in fact. However, the service is far better than the limited alternatives.  The single biggest frustration is the data transfer cap.  I am allowed only 5 gigabytes of data traffic per month, inbound and outbound added together.  If I exceed the limit I am charged $.05/megabyte.  In other words, if I go crazy with YouTube, upload a bunch of high definition photos or decide to grab a couple disc images for a Linux install, I will pay $50.00 per gigabyte for the "overage". 

This isn't a rate structure.  It is punitive pricing aimed at protecting the achilles heel of wireless broadband -- insufficient bandwidth.  Verizon wants to serve lots of customers and collect lots of monthly fees.  However, the greater the number of users on a given frequency band, the slower the service will be for all at times of peak usage.  Adding capacity required additional equipment and, in some places, additional electromagnetic spectrum.    The former can be expensive and the latter may not even be available in some areas.  So, heavy users are constrained by a heavy-handed cap.  I understand it.  And I hate it so much that I will be out the door at the first sniff of an alternative.

So, do I have broadband right now?  One definition popular with the telecommunications industry draws the line at 768 kbps.  By that measure, I have broadband about 60% of the time, except hardly ever during snowstorms or heavy rains.  In 2010, this speed is too low.  I can think of half a dozen uses that are only practical with speeds in the 1 to 3 megabit/sec range.  Moreover, the cap prevents one from substituting patience for speed.  If the cap were doubled, or maybe even tripled, Verizon Mobile Broadband would be a satisfactory semi-broadband alternative until better alternatives arrive.  In the meantime, one can pound sand. 

The bottom line?  In terms of speed, Verizon Mobile Broadband comes close to the low end of adequacy as a simple broadband service in the home.  When the data cap and the high overage charges are considered, however, it falls short.

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