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September 28, 2005

Beyond WiFi

Verizon’s ads are right; there ARE times when their wireless BroadbandAccess (AKA EVDO) is a better choice than WiFi.  The major advantages over WiFi are:

  1. entire cities are covered and not just coffee shops;
  2. one monthly subscription of $59.99 (two year contract, must be a Verizon Wireless customer for voice) covers all the locations so you aren’t paying another $10 very day in every airport or hotel where you want connectivity;
  3. It works when you’re moving in a train or car or boat.

EVDO is a technology which uses signal from cellular towers to provide Internet access.  This technology means that the service continues to work even if you are on the move – in a car or train for example – so long as you are in range of a properly equipped tower.  Just like wireless voice service, quality varies as you move around and connections are sometimes dropped.

BroadbandAccess speed varies but is comparable to DSL in more than 50 US metropolitan areas which include, according to Verizon Wireless, one-third of the US population.  My experience is that Verizon Wireless is expanding this footprint aggressively.

You can also use a degraded version of the service known as “National Access” in “thousands of cities”.  National Access still lets you move around but the data rate is comparable to a dialup connection.  It certainly isn’t everywhere.  I couldn’t get any kind of access vacationing on the Maine Coast, for example, even though my Verizon wireless phone did work there.  And there are huge holes in the center of the country.

Look at the coverage map here before even thinking about subscribing.

In order to get EVDO access, you subscribe to a service – Verizon Wireless has by far the best coverage right now (note: I haven’t tested any others) – and you get a card with an antenna to put into your PC (or connect through certain mobile phones).  The card comes with your two year contract to BroadbandAccess for an additional $99.99 and an activation fee of $20.

The service is supposed to be $59.99 per month with a two year contract for customers who already have “qualifying” voice plans.  I’m still paying the old rate of $79.99/month, apparently as a penalty for being an early adopter (I’ve emailed VZW and a robot says I’ll get a response soon).

This month the service has been particularly valuable.  I saved five WiFi daily fees at airports where I couldn’t get free WiFi.  The Sheraton in Boston offered broadband access for around $11/day (the rule is the more expensive the hotel, the more likely they are to charge separately for broadband access).  I was very happy not to have to buy that for three days.

The quality was good enough so that I was able to do a BBC Radio interview over Skype over my EVDO connection from my hotel room (more about that here).  Interesting note that I was bypassing not only the toll takers at the hotel but also at traditional telcos.  It would have cost a small fortune to make the call to BBC on my mobile phone or the hotel phone.

On the train to and from Boston, I was online most of the time.  Sometimes fast, sometimes slow – just like the train itself, but usually at usable email speed.  At the rail stations in New York, Boston, and New Jersey I had good DSL-like connections.  During a WiFi outage at the trade show I was attending, EVDO made me the only nerd online (highly prestigious).

The quick spread of wide area wireless connectivity will be a great help in making the world more disaster resistant.  This technology WAS deployed quickly in some of the areas hard hit by Katrina.  If we can make sure that at least some cellular towers have enough standby power, technology like this will keep us in BOTH voice and data communication during and after catastrophes.

I blogged here about using EVDO together with WiFi as a temporary way to get broadband access in an unwired part of Vermont and here about not very successful offshore EVDO.

Om Malik blogs about EVDO be built into laptops here, on EVDO cards for Powerbooks here, and on Sprint’s EVDO service here.  Andy Abramson blogs about EVDO and competing technologies here.

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