Verizon wireless broadband performs well in its test drive

September 30, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

I FELT MORE than a little geeky, driving around the Baltimore Beltway on a Sunday afternoon, pulling off from time to time to fire up my laptop and check out a half-dozen Web sites.

But if you're going to report on the cutting edge of technology, you have to be willing to do what cutting-edge guys do - test download speeds from parking lots so you can brag to the next cutting-edge guy about how fast your Internet connection is.

In the case of Verizon's new wireless broadband service, it's pretty fast - at least in the direction most users care about.

For people who travel with laptops and want to stay connected at high speeds, the BroadbandAccess system delivers what it promises - albeit for a price and in relatively limited areas.

There's no question that BroadbandAccess is a major improvement over travelers' previous choices: using a slow dial-up connection, using a first-generation wireless network that isn't much faster, or searching for scattered Wi-Fi "hotspots" provided by restaurants, hotels, airports and other businesses.

Verizon's $80-per-month service is available in 14 major cities, including Baltimore, where it rolled out last week, giving the company by far the nation's largest third-generation (3G) wireless network. Both AT&T and Nextel offer high-speed wireless services, but they're limited to a handful of cities.

Verizon's technology is known as EV-DO, which stands for Evolution-Data Optimized - as good a buzzword as any.

The company claims it can deliver download speeds of 300 to 500 kilobits per second. That's about half as fast as most wired DSL connections and less than 20 percent as fast as cable Internet service. But it's still plenty of speed for snappy Web browsing, e-mail and other applications short of high-resolution streaming video.

The company also claims upload speeds of 60 to 80 kilobits per second, which is faster than a dial-up connection, but not much.

In the Baltimore-Washington market, the new high-speed network casts a bubble around the Baltimore Beltway stretching from White Marsh in the East to Owings Mills in the West. It extends down the Interstate 95 corridor to Washington and covers big chunks of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and northern Virginia, with a spur along U.S. 50 to Annapolis. So road warriors who spend most of their time in the corridor should be happy with it.

To use the service, you'll have to buy a special wireless network adapter (the Wi-Fi cards that most use today employ a different technology). The list price is $250, but there's a $150 rebate offer. I doubt the price will go up to the full $250 - nobody pays that much for a wireless adapter these days.

I tried the service with a two-year-old Compaq Presario laptop running Windows XP. After installing the software - including drivers for the card program that manages connections, I slipped the adapter into my computer's PC Card slot. After a minute or so, the PC recognized the card, and presented me with a "Connect" button on the screen.

I live in one of the new network's fringe areas (one or two bars out of four), so it took a couple of seconds to connect, but shortly after that I was surfing. My results came close to Verizon's estimates in both directions.

Using a dozen different servers with Web pages designed to test visitors' broadband connection speeds, I got downloads ranging from 290 to 655 kilobits per second (kbps), with an average between 400 and 500 kbps - right on the mark.

Upload speeds were considerably slower, ranging from 50 to 97 kbps. That's faster than dial-up, which maxes out around 40 kbps, and well below the 256 kbps that my Comcast cable service provides (and which I think is pretty stingy, at that). If you regularly have to upload large files to an office server (digital photos, PowerPoint presentations, etc.), you'll spend a lot of time waiting for BroadbandAccess to deliver.

Cruising around Baltimore with my laptop to test coverage, I had no problems - the laptop maintained its connection, even in fringe areas. That's one of the advantages of a cellular system, which is designed to hand off callers and data customers from one tower to another.

When I finally got far enough from the 3G network to lose the signal, the connection automatically reverted to Verizon's older, first-generation data network, which is available in most of the country. It's slow, but at least it's available.

All things considered, there wasn't much to complain about. The question is who would benefit from the service enough to pay $80 a month for it.

The answer is business customers who move constantly from location to location, without knowing whether an alternative will be available.

In addition to the Baltimore-Washington area, the service is available in Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Austin, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Milwaukee, San Diego, Tampa and West Palm Beach.

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