Verizon Has Great Modem for Bad 4G Network

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There is fan rage, road rage -- and now, it seems, 4G rage.

Who knows how the combined mobile might of Verizon ( VZ), T-Mobile, AT&T ( T) and Sprint ( S) lost it on turn two of the 4G Cellular Network Marketing 500. But believe it. There's a 13-car pileup out on the track. And fire and debris everywhere.
Every new iteration of Verizon 4G LTE products offer not just good performance, but absurdly good performance -- but the network remains erratic and unreliable.

Forget the name-calling and the mountain of negative 4G press. These days being a 4G hater earns badges of journalistic legitimacy. The Society of American Business Editors and Writers recently gave one of its peer-reviewed awards for a story called "4G is a Myth." Ouch!

Now, all this techno bloodletting is entertaining, but us small-biz types don't have the luxury of dismissing 4G merely for some bad press. The cost-saving and productivity gain of a wireless Web connection that offers legit business-class Internet access is so compelling any possibility must be explored.

So when Verizon said a few weeks ago that it had a new 4G LTE USB modem, the 551L, for me to test, I had little choice but to take this sucker with me on a business trip from New York to Dallas and back.

What you get
When it works, the 551L works.

Clearly, Verizon has had just about enough of the bad 4G buzz. Every new iteration of 4G offers not just good performance, but absurdly good performance. The 551L banishes all issues of previous Verizon 4G modems from LG and Pantech. Gone are the ugly looks and clunk factor. Today's 551L is thin, well-designed and easy to configure. Install the company's VZAccess Manager software, plug in the modem, hit a few buttons and, poof, you are doing business in spectacular digital style. I'll save you the geek factor, but access is basically three times faster than what you are using to read this article.

Overall -- given the right location and provisioning -- you could easily run your business remotely using this tool with nary a wire in site.

What you don't get
When this sucker doesn't work, it really doesn't work.

It's easy to see where the varicose veins of 4G rage run: Verizon's 4G access can produce maddening problems. Access is limited to roughly 40 markets and 60 some-odd airports, and in my tests LTE continues to be wonky in moving cars (pipe down, I was a passenger, not the driver).

But the real problem is that 4G LTE as a system works on top of existing 3G and 1G cell systems. And the hand-off between these networks can be heavily affected by physical factors such as surrounding buildings, power and weather -- to the point where LTE access could be actually worse than existing 3G wireless Web access.

One example of many: Next to the window in my seventh-floor Dallas hotel room, the 4G connection worked reasonably well -- for about 10 minutes. Then it would crash my computer. But when I connected to the Web via the Wi-Fi hotspot that ran via a demo 3G Verizon Droid in the same location, Web access was stable for hours on end.

And there is no way to know where 4G will work for you and where it will not, until you try. And that will touch just about anybody's buttons.

Bottom line
Verizon is clearly the mobile 4G leader for small-business data access. When this system works, it is -- without doubt -- the fastest, most powerful and most effective business Web access technology I have tested. But coverage is limited, the technology can be affected by other factors and when 4G goes against you, it definitely puts you in touch with your inner angry child.

Until those extremes get worked out, which will probably be 2012 at the earliest, 4G will remain its own worst small-business enemy.

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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.

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