Those of us who are addicted to broadband connections at work and at home can go into serious withdrawal when traveling, leading us to grasp at whatever straw holds any hope of providing wireless high-speed when we're on the go.
Since last year, Verizon Wireless has offered its version of EV-DO technology, which promises DSL speeds with a wireless connection. Sprint has just announced it is rolling out a similar service using the same technology.
When Verizon introduced the service in the Washingotn, D.C., area last year, we were among the first to sign up. It soon had us spitting nails. Next to a certain teenager we once hired to mow our lawn, this is 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.
The theory behind this service is that in some areas, it will pick up a special Verizon EV-DO broadband channel that will deliver speeds of up to 1.5 mbps, which is very fast. If that channel isn't available, it will deliver an ISDN-speed service over the regular cellular network.
We ordered the service one day and the very next the FedEx truck wheeled into our driveway in Northern Virginia, delivering the laptop card with collapsing antenna. We plugged it into our laptop, installed the software and everything was great except that we had no bars ... no bars at all. Translation: no signal.
We went onto the back deck of our home, which is within a mile of numerous cell towers and held the laptop precariously over the edge of the deck. No signal.
The next day, in our Fairfax, Va., office we tried again. We're on the eighth floor of a building that is on one of the highest points in the D.C. area., next to a freeway that has more cell towers than dandelions. We can see the Capitol, the Washington Monument, Dulles Airport, Tysons Corner and we can watch the black helicopters crissing and crossing the area. (Ooops, forget that last part).
In this building, we got a strong signal and the Verizon system quickly assigned us an IP address. But we could not surf the Web, do an FTP transmission or send e-mail. We called Verizon tech support and spent quite a bit of time with a very earnest young man who went through every step of the process with us several times, finally admitting he was stumped.
"Maybe you could try it outside?" he asked plaintively. We did. Same result. We have repeated the process several times from the same location, with the same results.
Other locations? Here are a few:
• Garden City, N.Y. Smack in the middle of Long Island, Garden City is hardly a remote area but a weak signal delivered agonizingly slow speeds for a few minutes at a time before cutting out. Fortunately, our Wi-Fi-equipped laptop easily locked onto neighboring homes' unprotected Wi-Fi networks, no thanks to Verizon.
• Bethany Beach, Delaware Our Cingular cell phone gets five bars on the deck of the oceanfront townhouse we rented for a week. The Verizon "Wireless Broadband" card? Same experience as Garden City -- slow, sporadic, useless. Fortunately, by sitting outside, to the delight of every mosquito in town, we picked up one weak Wi-Fi signal which seemed to be coming from the public library down the street.
• Long Beach Airport, California Weak, sporadic signal. Fortunately, jetBlue provides free Wi-Fi in its terminal.
• Various Other Airports We've lost track. Let's see ... Baltimore-Washington International, St. Louis, Richmond, Dulles. No service. We try hard not to spend much time in airports or the list would be longer.
• Falls Church, Virginia To our astonishment, while cooling our heels in a medical building waiting room, we got a strong broadband signal that lasted for all of 20 minutes or so before abruptly disconnecting and refusing all attempts to reconnect. Thereafter, we poached on careless doctors' Wi-Fi feeds. This was the one and only time we have ever gotten any use out of Verizon's "service."
Let's see, six months at $90 per month, that's $540. So that 20 minutes of miraculous broadband cost us about $27 per minute, or about $1,620 an hour. Wow, that's even more than Bill Clinton's lawyers charged.
Wanting to be fair to Verizon, we tried this not once but twice. We signed up for the service as soon as it became available last year. When it did not work even once during the first 30 days, we sent the card back for a refund. We tried again a few months later -- getting a new card and the latest version of the software, pretty much eliminating the likelihood of an isolated defect.
We tried the first card in two different Dell Inspiron laptops. We've been trying to use the second one in a Dell XPS laptop. The XPS stands for "Extreme Performance System" and it is indeed a blazing fast machine with every possible upgrade and up-to-the-minute software patches, upgrades and updates. Anything that does not work on this machine will not work anywhere.
Our conclusion? It may be that there are "hot spots" where this service will work but we haven't found them. On the other hand, we've come to realize how ubiquitous unprotected Wi-Fi feeds are. Every hotel and airport we've visited over the last year or so has had Wi-Fi service, nearly always free. Every wide spot in the road now has an "Internet Cafe" where Wi-Fi is available. Even if the Verizon Wireless card worked, I'm no longer sure it would be worth the expense and bother.
While you may not want to sit around a coffee shop all day, it beats spending the day fighting with the Verizon Wireless card. And just think how many Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Frappuccinos that $90 would buy each month.