Earlier this month, Verizon Wireless (VZ - Get Report) matched other American carriers such as Sprint (S) and T-Mobile by rolling out an ultrafast wireless standard called LTE. The new network, launched in 38 U.S. cities, is seriously fast, at least based on the performance of early devices from LG and Pantech. When working properly, LTE can compete with broadband data access you can get from the likes of Comcast (CMCSA - Get Report), Time Warner (TWX - Get Report) and yes, even Verizon itself.
The thing is, these big carriers are hardly the only 4G players on the market. A slew of third-party wireless wannabes also are offering faster-than-3G access. Once-lowly MetroPCS (PCS), for example, offers an LTE network similar to Verizon's in six markets. And so-called WiMax connectivity is being sold by cable operations such as Comcast and Cablevision (CVC - Get Report).To get a feel for how the alternative independent 4G markets might help the average small business, I have been testing the latest 4G offering from Clearwire: the Clear 4G+ mobile USB modem ($115 or $6 per month leased with a two-year contract; month-to-month rates start at $55). What you get
This is perfectly reasonable wireless access at a perfectly reasonable price. If there has been a bigger drama queen than Clearwire in the wireless world, I haven't seen it. Owned by -- among others -- Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner, Google (GOOG - Get Report) and Intel (INTC - Get Report), the company has been at the center of controversies over system quality and customer service, not to mention the rumors that it does not have enough cash to actually build out its networks. But at least for this lowly tester, it is hard to see where the drama is coming from. The product came to my shop as a professional-looking add-on data modem. I dropped it into my test Toshiba Portege R500 USB port, and with a few clicks, poof ... I was online. Coverage with the slower 3G network around my Westchester, N.Y., home and around the New York City area in 4G were solid. But most importantly, Clearwire brings new, small-business-friendly ideas to pricing. For example, you can lease a modem for $6 per month and get two connections for $80 a month. That means you can tool up your four-person business for $184 a month, four devices included. And if you are covered by legit 4G access and have basic simple Web needs, this setup really can replace your office's wired Web connection. Anybody else smell money here beside me? What you don't get
Clearwire does not offer national coverage, and it is not a fully mature company. For all its upside, it is clear Clearwire has limits. You can get 3G access with the unit, so coverage is good, at least in this early test. But true 4G connectivity is limited, so you absolutely have to test the system to see if it can work for you in your business. And for all its blue-chip owners and low price, you are dealing with a firm enduring growing pains. So for now you will want to keep your contracts on a month-to-month basis if for some reason you need to jump to another carrier. Bottom line
Clearwire delivers easy, low-cost access to the Web with flexible pricing plans. For basic access on a mobile business laptop it seems to be a reasonable bet. I would not base one's entire data infrastructure on this system, though, until the company proves itself over time. But the larger message of Clearwire is, uh, clear: Smaller firms are no longer limited to just a few major service providers for getting on the Web. Data access, just like everything else in the digital age, is rapidly becoming a commodity. >To submit a news tip, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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