American consumers looking for broadband wireless service basically have three choices: Verizon, Sprint and Cingular. All three are fast, at least sometimes, all three are expensive and all three advertise unlimited downloads.
Over the past two years wireless providers have been developing and rolling out their national wireless Internet services. These services, which send and transmit data using cellular frequencies, are a portable wireless connection for laptops and cell phones that can, under the right conditions, reach broadband speeds.
Many of the latest cell phones, such as Blackberries and other PDAs, can connect to these services. But mostly, the services are used by laptops that are equipped with an easily-installed PCMIA card.
At ConsumerAffairs.com, we have been testing and using all three services for three months. What we learned is that each service has its advantages but overall, Sprint was the most likely to deliver a fast, usable signal. We subscribe and pay for both Verizon and Cingular services; Sprint provided us with a free test for three months.
All three services cost roughly the same: Cingular and Verizon are $60 per month with a qualifying voice plan or $80 per month alone. Sprint now offers its service for about $60 regardless of whether you have a voice plan.
Although Sprint did the best in our tests, none of these services is truly nationwide so it's best to perform thorough testing before committing to one plan. Because the service is so expensive, the companies will usually let you demo the product before committing. It's important to take advantage of that demo.
Be sure to check each company's wireless coverage map -- Verizon, Cingular and Sprint -- to make sure they can deliver a signal in the spots you're most likely to be. After all, at $80 a month, it's essential you get as much out of the service as possible.
The services all claim about 400-700 kilobytes per second downloading with bursts of more than 2 megabytes per second. Upload speeds flutter around 200 kb per second. So if you get a good signal in your home or office, this service could replace existing broadband connections such as DSL or cable.
However, it would not be wise to replace a standard broadband connection with a wireless one if you don't travel or work away from home or office. Wireless is slower than DSL or cable and costs about double those services. Wireless broadband is really intended for business people -- road warriors who need to be in touch 24/7.
At ConsumerAffairs.com, we're fairly typical business users. We use wireless broadband to connect from the U.S. Capitol and other points around Washington, D.C., as well as when traveling and as a back-up if the office T-1 goes down.
Using the free ConsumerAffairs.com broadband test, we were able to test the services throughout various parts of the country.
In Washington, D.C., and in Manhattan, all three services tested well, reaching speeds close to, and in the case of Cingular, above 2 mb per second.
But outside those urban jungles, the services varied wildly. Sprint and Verizon, which use the faster and more reliable EVDO service, tested well in many rural locations.
Sprint in particular did well, surfing the web at about 400 kb per second in Reno, Nev., Scarsdale, N.Y., Indianapolis, Ind., Buffalo, N.Y., and even Uniontown, Pa., a town of about 14,000 people, located an hour south of Pittsburgh.
In most of those locations, Cingular had absolutely no signal. In Scarsdale and Indianapolis there were weak signals that yielded unbearably slow speeds and browsing times.
In our D.C. office Cingular reached the record download speed of 2.8 mb per second. However, using Cingular as a "nationwide" Internet provider is not practical and, as of this writing, Cingular's EDGE and 3G service simply can't compete with Verizon and Sprint's EVDO.
As far as services go, Sprint and Verizon were similar. Although Sprint is slowly unveiling a faster EVDO technology than Verizon, both performed well in various locations.
However, there is a catch with Verizon: it advertises its service as "unlimited," but in reality, if you download too much, as ConsumerAffairs.com found out, Verizon will cancel your account. It's a convenient way to end your contract but not so convenient if you're trying to do work away from the office.
Both Cingular and Sprint advertise their service as unlimited and representatives assured us that there are no limits on downloading. During our extensive tests of their service, this proved to be the case.
Another point to consider is the physical card you use to receive the service. Verizon and Sprint's cards are sturdy. But Cingular's card includes a required external antennae that is very flimsy. Although it has not broken during our testing period, it seems like it's only a matter of time.
For most consumers, the current generation of wireless broadband is too expensive, too unreliable and too slow to be practical. There are enough Wi-Fi hotspots to satisfy most occasional travelers and wireless broadband is not really a suitable substitute for a hard-wired DSL or cable connection.
For dedicated business travelers who absolutely, positively need to be in touch and are willing to pay the big bucks, our tests give the nod to Sprint, with Verizon second and Cingular still trying to get into the race.
Long-Term Verizon Test
As he has recounted at great length, our somewhat irascible editor-in-chief, James R. Hood, has been using Verizon's wireless broadband service almost since the day it was introduced in the Washington, D.C., area. His first review -- in July 2005 -- pronounced it "the most shiftless, unreliable service we have ever paid good money for."
"At about $90 a month, it's far from cheap but we found it to work so poorly it would be overpriced at any price," Hood fumed.
Since then, however, the price has come down and service has improved notably as Verizon equips more and more of its towers with the EVDO technology, Hood reports.
Here are Hood's crude notes from his various travels over the last year. Like a comet, he tends to go to the same places, thus limiting the scope somewhat.
- On the runway at Dulles Airport -- We worked for hours while waiting out a band of thunderstorms.
- High atop the Park Lane Hotel in New York City -- Signals so strong and speeds so high we hated to leave despite room service prices that could feed a family of 12 for a year or more in much of the world.
- Garden City, Long Island, New York -- Big bucks abound but it's not the best spot for laptop addicts.
- The North Fork of Eastern Long Island, New York -- Actually, this ever-narrower little sand spit is so remote, it's surprising the service works as well as it does here. It's slow but steady.
- Evanston, Illinois -- Like Garden City, an upscale suburb has to make do with slow speeds and intermittent signals.
- Ocean Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA -- Too much ocean in the coverage pattern, maybe?
- Long Beach Airport, Long Beach, CA -- Fortunately, JetBlue has its airport Wi-Fi working well now.
- Chevy Chase, MD -- Works fine here if you don't mind standing on the sidwalk. The signal drops out completely in most high-rise buildings.
- Fairfax, VA -- Must be all the Beltway Bandits sucking up the bandwidth. Even when signal strength is what they used to call "5x5," connectivity tends to be poor.