Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mobile Hotspots and Me

I've been using a mobile internet connection since late 2006.  I got a new mobile phone, the Samsung SPH-A900 or Blade.  (This was later Lex Luthor's phone on Smallville.  I felt so evil.)  The one feature that intrigued me was the "phone as modem" capability.  I did some checking and got it to work using Sprint's 3G EVDO technology.  It was faster than the 3 Mbps DSL line from BellSouth that I'd been using, except in PING response speed.

Once I had things set, I discontinued my DSL service and never looked back.  Then, I moved again to a rural community (to help with my parents) where Sprint had no 3G service.  Often, their 1.5G speed was worse than dial up.  They were slated for 3G service the month before I arrived, but something wasn't working and the technicians didn't understand what was happening.  In the middle of a freezing, snowy January they figured it out.  I would go from 2 Mbps to dial up speeds about once every 6 weeks, call customer service who told me that there was nothing wrong, but they would send me PRL updates, etc. and the phone would work better for 6 weeks.  There was "nothing wrong with their network" over an LG Musiq, LG Lotus, LG Optimus S, and finally the iPhone 4S.  I didn't draw the same conclusion about their network.

In these last 3 years, it's become slightly more stable, and with an iPhone having EVDO Revision A technology, I'd seen downlink speeds of 3 - 4 Mbps fairly regularly and I'd once or twice seen downloads through Firefox exceed 500 KB/sec.  Someone in the neighbourhood apparently got connected to Sprint recently and my numbers dwindled to unusable--shutting off the phone unusable.  Besides that, Apple's iOS 5.x mobile hotspot is unstable.

Back on June 6th, I decided to do something about the situation.  I ordered a Sierra Wireless Elevate from AT&T.  I'm not very trusting of the company since they were Southwestern Bell + PacBell + AmeriTech + BellSouth and who knows what other baby Bells.  I went against my feelings.

The device arrived on the 8th and it arrived with the SIM card installed and I just needed to tailor it to my needs.  Despite the slick marketing, it wasn't very fast using HSPA/HSPA+.  Granted, it was much better than unusable but for all their hype, it was barely faster than Sprint at best and it rarely achieved the best time, despite a lack of users.  Once they had as many users as Sprint, they'd be in trouble.  Then, they gave me the first bill and I was a bit shocked that they charged me for data usage while it was being shipped to me.  It wasn't that the money was so high, but that I was paying for time when I didn't have access to it.  Several times, it wasn't connected for whatever reason and a power cycle (power off/power on) was necessary.  This was a refurbished unit, so it should have been working much better.  I returned the whole thing and cancelled the contract.  I must pay for the usage but supposedly, I shouldn't have to pay for anything else--supposedly.  The usage was rather high.  In 10 days, I'd used slightly more than 2.5 GB--half my monthly allowance, and overages were $10 per 1 GB.

I went to a corporate Verizon store in the same town and bought a hotspot.  This was made by ZTE.  I was uncomfortable with all the complaints about the latest Novatel Wireless MiFi LTE device.  Verizon has a 10 GB plan for $80, as well as the typical 5 GB plan for $50.  This ZTE device (#890L) has been out about a month, so it might not be so foolproof, and I'm definitely a fool.  By the way, all of these devices support LTE, where you can find it available.  The ZTE device does not keep track of data used, so you're on your own to look for overages.

Unfortunately, I didn't take the computer with me, so I didn't get to experience LTE right away.  However, I wouldn't be returning to a house with LTE available so, did it really matter?  When I returned home, I set it to charge and connected and personalised it.  It worked fine but Verizon's EVDO/3G service is slower than Sprint's and it's just as overloaded as Sprint's.  Oops.

I had a download of over 800 MBs waiting that I wasn't going to ignore and since I was on the last day of the billing cycle (last day to start?), I tried downloading.  It showed 2 hours, 15 hours, 3 hours, 1 day, and levelled off at 6 hours and change.  Whoa!  I went to another location closer to the main road and it was just as bad.  (Since I wrote this in June, Verizon Wireless has implemented LTE service in town. I don't know if it's good or bad, but a friend has a Samsung Galaxy S III and it shows up as having LTE service available.  I guess I should have been more patient.)  I headed back toward the town where I bought the device, where LTE was active, and the download finished the final ~700 MB in 20 minutes.  I tried just after that and it recorded something a bit over 5 Mbps--not blazing speed in my experience, though there was a peak of 25 Mbps for maybe half a second.  That's not exactly what I'd expect from the nation's fastest 4G network but better than what I'd seen from their 3G network, of course.

One problem I've noticed with the ZTE 890L is that connected to EVDO/3G and using battery only, once disconnected it needs a power cycle to be usable again.  It doesn't happen connected to a power outlet.  Another odd thing I've noticed with the Verizon network in town is that they seem to be on EVDO Revision 0 instead of Revision A, even though they claimed years ago that their whole network was faster than Sprint's because they were on Revision A.

My exploration and experimentation is complete.  Sprint had the best speed in town and perhaps after their capacity and data speed upgrades, they'll be faster than Verizon here.  They'll probably be faster than AT&T, if AT&T actually get some customers and therefore, get the congestion.

I ended up returning the Verizon device about a week from when I bought it.  I'm now using another Sierra Wireless device from Sprint with a huge (over double the size) 3700 mAh battery for long life (and long charging) that cost $99.99 after rebate.  They call it "Tri-Fi", as it supports EVDO/3G, WiMAX, and LTE; the latter two being considered casually as 4G technologies.  I like that it keep track of data during the session, as well as overall usage.  I'll see how it works in a WiMAX environment since I'm planning a trip to Philadelphia.

Update 2014.03.02: This ended badly overall, and I've changed again.

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