Verizon 4G Flaws Call for Industry Gut Check

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As part of the aggressive rollout of its blazingly fast 4G LTE network, Verizon ( VZ) has quietly remade the software consumers must use to access this network. Called VZAccess Manager, the application, which is similar to what AT&T ( T), Sprint ( S) and T-Mobile offer, brokers the connection between a Web modem plugged into a laptop and the cell networks providing that modem entry to the Internet.

But unlike most competitors, this most recent riff on VZAccess Manager offers remarkably accurate real-time upload and download speeds of actual network performance. In other words, you can really see -- minute by minute, bit by bit -- what kind of data service Verizon provides.

Verizon's rollout of the blazingly fast 4G LTE network through 2013 threatens to surpass its Apple iPhone launch in hype, but the promise of the network wasn't evident in a recent 750-plus mile test around the Northeast.

Dying to know what small businesses might expect for their cellular modem dollar, I took a Verizon LTE modem, a Sierra Wireless ( SWIR) 3G/4G wireless hotspot from Sprint and an HSPA+ modem from T-Mobile on a 750-some-odd mile cellular road trip to Maine and back.

As an unabashed tech geek who has dreamed of what truly fast wireless access could do to this economy, I'm sorry to report I have not spent a more depressing 12 hours in recent memory.

One G too far
For sure, one trip does not national coverage make. My colleagues and I will continue to test these tools across the country in the coming months to get a clearer networking picture. But my cellular test route from suburban Westchester County in New York up to Hartford, Conn., Boston and New Hampshire and then into Maine has been a reliable predictor of cellular performance for about 15 years. And I can't see how that would change merely because carriers are rolling out a faster service.

My initial takeaway? Sure, when there was 4G LTE access, it was impressive. In the few spots in and around New York and outside Boston -- remember full national rollout will not happen until 2013 -- LTE remains the benchmark for network speed and power.

But beyond that, I was stunned -- I mean stunned -- to see how feeble overall data rates were, even when there was nominally good so-called 3G digital coverage.

Now forget speeds that I might see from the Web connection in my office. I regularly saw 70 kilobits per second, or not much faster than the data rates provided by 56-baud modems from decades past. And often -- I mean like every 30 seconds in spots -- data rates would cycle down to nothing. Like Nada. Zero. Zip.

There often was no connectivity at all.

It's going to be work to make 4G work
To be fair to Verizon, these sorts of variations in data rates are not unique to them. I found similar issues with the Sprint and T-Mobile modems I had on hand. Apparently, these kinds of oscillating data rates are all part and parcel of providing Web access at highway speeds. And Verizon does an excellent job of cranking this network up to offer high-quality products, such as voice service and data coverage. High-bit-rate media services such as Pandora ran well on a test Motorola ( MOT) Droid during this and other road trips. And phone service was excellent for my wife and me as we drove, as it has been for a decade.

But the image of the core cellular network as revealed by the new VZAccess Manager was shockingly clear: Even at its best, our real-world cell network is a brittle and unstable system -- a system that requires sophisticated and costly engineering and investment on which to offer meaningful service.

So 4G or not, the fast, cheap, data infrastructure that has been the backbone of the digital revolution -- and the basis for much of the forward-looking enthusiasm for Web companies -- simply may not exist in our modern cellular network infrastructure.

Now sure, one test is not a trend. But the data rates I saw were so low that that I wonder: Can digital actors such as Google ( GOOG), Facebook and Amazon ( AMZN), which are trying to ride the backs of these new cell networks, blithely step from the comfy world of landed Internet into the pricey, unstable, frankly hostile, mobile Web?

Can they assume the same success they found in the plentiful, stable traditional wired Web in this high-cost, low-margin mobile world?

My gut says, they can't. What does yours say?

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.