With Elevate Hotspot, AT&T Gets Over 4G Disgrace

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Look who's finally come clean as an LTE wireless contender. AT&T ( T) and its Elevate 4G mobile hotspot ($70 with two-year plan at $50 per month for 5 GB, $10 per GB after that).

If there is a lifetime achievement award for business bait and switch, it has to go to AT&T, and its maybe -- or maybe not -- faster 4G wireless network. Remember the stupidity? After what, more than a year of hype, the old Ma Bell had the gall to deploy a "4G" network that in my -- and in many other -- tests turned out to be slower than its original 3G network. Yep, it really happened.
AT&T's Elevate 4G wireless hotspot can deliver first-rate mobile Web access -- where there's coverage.

Well, it seems AT&T has finally put its sad networking past behind it. The wireless giant has begun rolling out a legit Long Term Evolution, or LTE, fast wireless network similar to what carriers such as Verizon ( VZ) offer. AT&T says LTE is ready in 28 markets, with more coming online this year.

To get a feel for what businesses can expect from an LTE AT&T, I arranged for a demo of its hottest new modem, the Elevate 4G wireless hotspot from Sierra Wireless ( SWIR). The Elevate followed me on one my patented go-everywhere business trips. This time it was New York to San Francisco to Seattle to Spokane, Wash., and back to New York and back out Indianapolis. I also carried a Verizon LTE and Clear ( CLWR) 4G hotspot for comparison.

Verizon 4G Device Has 3G Problem

Here's what I learned:

1. On LTE, AT&T gets things done.
The immediate take away is AT&T is taking speed, reliability and business features way seriously with this 4G offering. When there is coverage -- which is still very much an issue -- the Elevate 4G delivered first-rate mobile business Web access. I will spare you the geekish, but essentially: You get traditional, wired Internet connectivity on the go, service in line with what other carriers such as Verizon has delivered to me in the past. In fact I am doing this column with it now. It's all good.

2. The modem is now a purchase decision.
AT&T and Sierra Wireless also deserve credit for making crafty choices with the Elevate. Done in a drop-proof, durable rubber and plastic, this thing has an actually (gasp!) legible 1.7-inch screen. Battery life is solid. And the unit can be controlled from an idiot-proof, Web-based browser. Go to att.elevate.com and there it can be easily and quickly customized, controlled and managed. Frankly, the modems I carried from Verizon and Clearwire looked old-fashioned by comparison.

3. AT&T has a long LTE haul ahead of it.
Yes, AT&T deserves credit for managing the back-end engineering of this rats nest of a network. Remember, the carrier must now wrestle with 1G, 1.5G, 3G, slow 4G and fast 4G networks, and all that must work atop each other. More often than not, speeds were not top end; particularly in smaller markets and in big-city suburbs, I was lucky to get 3G speeds. As impressive as the service was when it worked, it's obvious that there is whole lot of deploying ahead for LTE.

Rent an XCom (or Two) and Work Overseas

4. AT&T ain't givin' it away.
Be warned: AT&T expects you to pay for taking networking seriously. There is exactly one data plan available: $50 for 5GB per month. That's $600 a year! Ouch. A company rep told me that was enough for 25,000 one-page emails, 10,000 Web pages, and 500 minutes of YouTube videos. But bust those caps, which is easy if you download movies, and it's a stone-cold $10 per GB. Roam internationally and you are looking at still higher fees. If you go AT&T, make sure you factor in the total cost to own.

Bottom line:
I was impressed with the Elevate and AT&T's take on LTE service. I no longer got the burning feeling that AT&T was the dark lord of carriers. Assuming you have coverage, and you can eat the cost, it is a viable business option.

AT&T is shaping up to the emerging business access contender of the moment.

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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