Bay Area tech enthusiasts have been watching as other cities acquired super-fast 4G connections for connecting mobile devices to the Web. Finally, 4G service has arrived in San Francisco and surrounding areas.
After Long Wait, 4G Service Arrives
Tech types in the Bay Area have been dreaming for years about surfing the Web as quickly from mobile devices as computers in homes and offices. Now they have a chance, and many are saying it is about time.
Jay Miller and Kristen Isaacs of the start-up Fuze Box demonstrate how 4G speeds can allow high-quality videoconferencing on the go, while accessory gadgets let users share wireless connections to the Internet.
Two networks that offer such speedy connections opened for business in San Francisco and surrounding cities in December. That’s more than two years after Clearwire Corp. switched on a network in Baltimore that was a prototype for what carriers call 4G services, and many months after other cities gained access to such technology.
Clearwire’s network, which also is used for a service offered by Sprint Nextel Corp., became available for Bay Area subscribers at around the same time as rival Verizon Wireless boosted connection speeds for its wireless devices, using a technology called LTE, for long-term evolution.
The wait for 4G has seemed interminable for Silicon Valley technology enthusiasts, especially those that need high communications speed for their businesses. “It’s very frustrating,” said Beth Blecherman, a blogger in Palo Alto who contributes to sites that include Cool Mom Tech. She recalls asking for a speed upgrade in her wireless carrier’s store. “I said, ‘I’m ready for 4G,’ and they said, ‘It’s not in our area,’ ” she said.
4G, short for fourth generation, is a step up from a technology called 3G that previously was the fastest way for users of cellphones and other mobile devices to connect on the go. (Wi-Fi networks familiar to laptop PC users usually are faster, but only have the range to cover a home, café or office).
Some of the most frustrated with the wait have been workers in the Silicon Valley offices of Intel Corp. The chip giant helped popularize Wi-Fi and pushed for a longer-range cousin called WiMax, which Clearwire adopted. Intel invested more than $1.6 billion in the Kirkland, Wash., company and developed chips to let laptop computers use both WiMax and Wi-Fi.
Intel employees in Hillsboro, Ore., have been able to subscribe to WiMax services since January 2009, when Clearwire switched on its second commercial network. Their good fortune hasn’t been lost on their colleagues at Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters.
Karen Regis, who works there as Intel director of consumer client marketing, pointed out that Silicon Valley is the birthplace of Intel, Hewlett-Packard Co., Cisco Systems Inc. and Facebook Inc. and yet has lagged behind in wireless broadband. “It’s surprising and disappointing,” she said.
The lag doesn’t surprise some observers of the wireless industry, which has long been dogged by technical, financial and regulatory obstacles. For Clearwire, the main issue has been raising money for transmission towers and other high-tech infrastructure to switch on each city. The heavily indebted company—founded by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, who resigned last month as chairman—has leaned heavily on investor Sprint, which also carries a big debt load.
Other carriers chose to wait for LTE, a newer technology that shares common technical roots with WiMax. One was Verizon Wireless, which is jointly owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone Group PLC. Meanwhile, T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG, uses the 4G moniker to apply to a faster version of existing cellular technology.
Some local users tried to avoid the wait. G. Michael Sievert, Clearwire’s chief commercial officer, said it opened a test network in a small corridor of Silicon Valley about a year ago to qualified technology developers. “There were a lot of people asking for developer rights with dubious credentials,” he said.
Consumers typically adopt such high-speed services by buying a special modem to plug into their computers, or upgrading to laptops or smartphones with built-in 4G circuitry. The WiMax services start around $55 a month without data-usage restrictions; Verizon’s LTE service at $50 a month, with a data usage limit of five gigabytes.
How fast is it? Carrier estimates are widely discounted, since speeds experienced by users typically vary substantially.
One person who has studied real-world results locally is Jim Baker, a consultant who is managing a technical trial for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority using Clearwire’s service. A goal is to allow riders of its light-rail trains to use Wi-Fi-equipped laptops and cellphones to surf the Web from their seats at high speed. Tests around the San Jose area showed download speeds of 11.5 megabits per second and upload speeds of 900 kilobits, or about 10 times 3G speeds, Mr. Baker said.
Though there are still gaps in 4G coverage around the Bay Area, some users confirm the benefits. “I’m getting much better connectivity than my home DSL unit, which is excellent,” said Jay Miller, who recently started using Clearwire’s service.
Mr. Miller is director of business development for Fuze Box Inc., a San Francisco-based company offering technology to help conduct high-quality videoconferences on the go. Mr. Miller uses a device that Clearwire offers that allows multiple laptops and other devices that have Wi-Fi to share a 4G connection to the Internet—just what he was seeking to give demonstrations to customers.
Dave Schwartz, a Concord resident, has been using a similar device from Sprint that at times has served as a backup to provide Internet access to multiple laptop users at his employer in Oakland. “You could run a small office on this thing,” he said.
The new technology is expected to change habits in other ways. Some home users might find that 4G service is fast enough to allow them to dispense with cable or DSL subscriptions for wired Internet access, analysts say—much as many people have dropped landline phones and use cellular phones only.
Consumers also might find 4G faster than the Wi-Fi networks in cafés and public places, some of which tend to slow down when more users log on and have relatively slow connections to the Internet.
“People think of Wi-Fi as being a hot spot,” said Mike Thelander, an analyst who runs a firm called Signals Research. Compared with 4G, “it’s now a cool spot.”
By DON CLARK