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January 05, 2008

Should a Cellular Carrier Be Your ISP at Home?

It’s not cheap; it’s not available everywhere; it’s not even particularly fast. But wireless Internet access from your cellular provider may be your best option for home Internet access in some parts of the US (I don’t know enough about 3G coverage outside the US to write intelligently about it). Moreover, if it works for you, it’ll probably work all over your house, in the yard, and in an increasing number of places you visit. And no installation is required.

If you already have cable-based broadband, you would only be interested in cellular coverage for roaming so you can skip to the next post. Similarly, if you have a good fixed fixed wireless connection giving you over a meg of download capacity most of the time, you’re not interested. If you’re satisfied with your DSL, even if it’s just basic DSL, you’ll probably want to stick with it because it’ll be lot cheaper than wireless from a mobile carrier.

But if dialup and satellite have been your only options, read on.

In response to my post Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks, reader Michael Hardt posted this comment:

“I'm in rural New Hampshire, and I'm always scheming to improve on my dial-up Internet. Lately I've been reading about HSDPA and EVDO. I have very spotty cell phone access where I live--generally to make a call I have to walk outside and step about thirty feet away from the house. I've heard of cell phone repeaters and amplifiers and stationary antennae but don't understand them. Is there some way that I can mount an antenna to my roof to get Internet via a cell signal? Can I find out whether HSDPA and EVDO are even available in Canaan, NH?”

Bad news is that apparently neither HSPDA (High Speed Packet Downlink Access) nor EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) are available yet in Canaan, NH. The better news is that they may be soon. The rest of this post is about what these technologies can provide, how to tell whether or not you can get them where you live, and some facts to help you decide whether these are good alternatives for your home broadband service.

Oversimplified, HSPDA is used on GSM networks like that run by AT&T and Unicel; EVDO is used on GSM networks like those of Verizon and Sprint. If you use a different carrier, you need to check with them to see what sort of data plan they provide and find out what the coverage area for it is.

I use Verizon Wireless EVDO for roaming (although only for backup as a home service) so I know the most about that. You use it by buying (for less than $100 from Verizon Wireless) a datacard or USB device for your PC. You install some software; and, if you have coverage, you’re online. The rub is that an “unlimited” data plan costs $60/month, requires a two-year signup, and is even more if you don’t already have Verizon Wireless service.

“True” EVDO gives me download speeds at or a little above one megabit/second most of the time. Verizon advertises upload speeds of 500-800Kbps (kilobits per second) but I rarely get better than 200 to 300 and sometimes less. Latency (the time it takes for packets to get from your computer to websites and back) is typically low. This means that you can use EVDO for web browsing happily and can use VoIP over EVDO.

Be careful about downloading video and other big stuff, though. The Verizon plan says “If usage exceeds 5 GB per line during any billing period, we reserve the right to reduce throughput speeds of any application that would otherwise exceed such speed to a maximum of approximately 200 Kbps. These speeds are subject to change, in our reasonable discretion, in order to address network issues.” I’ve occasionally exceeded that with an online backup but no reason to assume they don’t mean to enforce this. They specifically ban P2P file sharing on this plan. I believe the restrictions of other carriers are at least as draconian but haven’t examined them.

Verizon’s data network does NOT provide EVDO everywhere. In many locations only 1xRTT is available. This service (which is part of the same rate plan) is a lot slower. It can go up to 110Kbps in either direction but Verizon says not to plan on more than 60Kbps (I agree). This is about twice as fast on the downlink side (from the Web to you) as most dialup connections and at least four times as fast for uplink. It’s fine for most email; slow for downloads; painful but better than dialup for web browsing; and barely usable sometimes for VoIP services like Skype. Although the download is nominally a lot slower than satellite, I found 1xRTT about equal to satellite in total experience because it has low latency (satellite latency is high) and is weather resistant.

Verizon Wireless is rapidly upgrading their network from 1xRTT to EVDO. They never install a new location or even a new radio without putting in EVDO. In Vermont the EVDO coverage area has grown like a welcome ink blot from its initial appearance in downtown Burlington a little over a year ago. Chance are, if you have good Verizon cell phone coverage, you’ll have EVDO reasonably soon – but they’re not making any promises.

So how do you find out what service is available to you? How do I know that reader Michael can’t get EVDO in Canaan right now? Two ways to find out. One is pretty simple, if you don’t have good cellular service for voice, you’re not going to be able to get it for data. Comes off the same towers. If a particular carrier doesn’t offer voice service in your area, they don’t offer data service either.

But, if you or a friend gets decent voice coverage from a mobile carrier at your house, you may be able to get good data coverage as well. The interactive Verizon coverage map is at http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/CoverageLocatorController?requesttype=NEWREQUEST (be sure to specify that you want to see data coverage). They call EVDO “BroadbandAccess” on this map and call 1xRTT either “Enhanced Service” or “National Access”; ignore “extended enhanced services” because it includes roaming rates.

A similar map for Sprint is at http://coverage.sprintpcs.com/IMPACT.jsp?id16=evdo_coverage&covType=sprint. Note that Sprint advertises that both their EVDO and 1xRTT are a little slower than Verizon. I haven’t tested this.

The AT&T map is at http://www.wireless.att.com/coverageviewer/. They advertise that their HSPDA provides 400-700Kbps downlink and 384 Kbps uplink. Like Verizon and Sprint much of the rural portion of AT&T’s data coverage uses a lower speed technology – there is called EDGE and runs at about the same speed as 1xRTT.

I couldn’t find a map for Unicel which is a shame because they have good rural coverage. But they’re in the process of being bought by Verizon Wireless and spinning off their some of their GSM properties to AT&T.

Cellular data isn’t the affordable fast service for everyone that we need to have in Vermont and the rest of the nation. But, where it’s available, it’s a better solution than satellite or dialup for those who can afford it.

See Sharing Cellular Data Access Between Multiple PCs if you want to connect your whole home network through a cellular data connection on one computer.

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