My Austin WiMAX Experience Was Good, But Not Good Enough

I spent the last few weeks roaming around Austin with a dual-mode WiMAX modem from Sprint (s S) in order to see how well it works here. The verdict: It’s not strong enough to be a wireline replacement, but if I didn’t have a contract to fulfill on Verizon (s vz) I’d ditch my MiFi and pick up the Overdrive 4G/3G personal hotspot and use that as my primary data connection.

Sadly, the truly fast 4G service is only available in a limited area and the upload speeds are only so-so, which means I’m not going to go out of my way to make WiMAX happen for me. But anyone who doesn’t already have a data card should take a hard look at it. Data service from Sprint costs $59.99 a month and the personal hotspot will set you back $349 for the device without a contract or $99 with one. The cost of data service and the contract price on the device is comparable to that of the MiFi.

However, my overall experience¬† with WiMAX bums me out because I had high hopes for the 4G wireless service as a way to fill in some of the broadband black holes in town where cable or DSL doesn’t reach. Unfortunately, WiMAX doesn’t seem to reach those areas, either.

WiMAX speeds downtown

The best speeds I noted were 4 Mbps down and never more than 500 kbps up. I was really disappointed with the upload speeds until I spoke with someone from Clearwire (s clwr), who said that upload speeds are limited to 1 Mbps in order to allocate more downlink capacity, which most people value over the upload speeds.

Capability-wise, I was able watch Hulu, stream music and make decent VoIP calls. Skype video was iffy, but I even have issues with that on my cable modem at home, so I’m not prepared to draw too many conclusions from just one test. Surfing the web was no problem — in fact in some areas where WiMAX coverage was strongest, it was just like surfing at home.

WiMAX at Zilker Park

Verizon EVDO at Zilker Park

However, in many areas of town I had a hard time getting a 4G signal at all, such as when I was being driven down MoPac and around the 360 in the western part of town. And the modem I was testing had a hard time transitioning between 3G and 4G signals, so VoIP in a moving car isn’t really possible. Some of this may be Austin’s hilly geography and part of it may be that the network in Austin, according to Sprint spokesman John Taylor, is still not 100 percent built out (he didn’t know how long that would take). In other areas, such as around Zilker Park and in the West Lake Hills, I got speeds of 2.5 Mbps down and 220 kbps up. The University of Texas campus isn’t covered by WiMAX at all since the university has its own Wi-Fi network.

Taylor told me the thought was that students getting Wi-Fi for free wouldn’t pay for coverage, so Clearwire didn’t put up the towers. Which indicates that in the rush to keep its first-mover advantage over the coming Long Term Evolution networks being deployed by the large carriers, Clearwire is cutting some corners. Depending on how well and where Verizon implements LTE by the end of this year, this could come back to hurt Clearwire and Sprint.

So overall, I think if you live in an area where the coverage is strong, WiMAX is a decent alternative to basic DSL or non-DOCSIS 3.0 cable service. If you don’t have access to either of those, even getting the 3-4 Mbps down speeds via WiMAX is a no-brainer. As a mobile broadband user, however, having a dual-mode device is a nice-to-have option, but isn’t really something I’d go out of my way for, especially since the area where the 4G service is significantly better than my current EVDO modem is small. What the WiMAX test really does is whet my appetite for a day when 4G is more ubiquitous.