Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Clear as mud

I got a snail-mail letter from CLEAR today trying to get me to subscribe to their service. For those not in-the-know, CLEAR is essentially an Internet service provider (ISP) that operates over a completely wireless WiMAX technology network - under the right conditions, it is allegedly as fast as DSL or cable broadband services. CLEAR has been quite the buzz lately, flooding the media with ads. I have been asked several times about CLEAR by friends. Here are my thoughts:

To begin, I'll first state that CLEAR really encourages you to sign a two year agreement with a $170 (per device) cancellation fee. Message to CLEAR: Excuse me, but if you're not going to make any performance guarantees, why would I sign a two year agreement with you? Are you people out of your mind? I'd be happy to consider signing a two year agreement with you if you guaranteed a minimum standard of service that meets or exceeds the service quality I have experienced with my current cable Internet service or DSL. Can't guarantee that? Then I won't sign a two year agreement with you. Would you sign a two year agreement with a company or person you didn't know anything about with a $170 cancellation fee? That's right, I didn't think you would.

There's good reason to suspect that there are problems too. When I poked around the Internet for people who have had experience with CLEAR, there are a number of people who have indicated inconsistent service quality with CLEAR. Many people have had trouble obtaining the data rates that CLEAR claims to provide. Those that do mention that they don't get that rate all the time, and that CLEAR has had network congestion issues (not related to signal quality) as well. Home Internet service is provided by a wireless receiver that many people claim will not function well unless it is positioned near a window facing the broadcast tower. My home's layout simply can't accommodate that.

Then there's CLEAR's AUP (acceptable use policy). I won't bash CLEAR too much because all the ISPs have equally ridiculous AUPs, for the most part. What's not so clear (pun intended) is what they are going to realistically consider "excessive use" that will trigger bandwidth and/or traffic restrictions. Is it okay for me to watch several Netflix movies through that service? They also say they don't allow any kind of traffic that looks to them like I'm running a server, including gaming servers. So I'm not a gamer, but what if I were? Oh, and I should mention that I do run a ssh server on my system, which is extremely important to me (it allows remote access to my home network), and my mail gets pushed to me via a third-party mail forwarding service. Does this violate the AUP? Probably.

Finally, I see no mention of any kind of support for Linux and other UNIX variants. I'm not asking CLEAR to provide phone support for Linux users. I'm not asking CLEAR to write applications that make it easy to connect, like they would for Windows or Mac users. All I'm asking is that they have equipment available that doesn't depend at all on a Windows system (including initial set-up of equipment or service). Is a Linux driver available for their laptop adapter? Can I configure the home router with a web browser (that DOES NOT require Flash!). I don't know. Heck, even Verizon Wireless has Linux-compatible USB adapters!

I know two people here in Austin who have tried out other people's CLEAR service. One experience was horrible, with a signal barely being received, and the connectivity slow. Another person in a different part of Austin reported excellent service and good response time. This absolutely supports the claims by users in Atlanta (GA) who commented on the inconsistent service quality.

The bottom line: Austin, TX is pretty much blanketed pretty well right now with either at&t DSL or Time Warner RoadRunner (cable modem) broadband service. They each have their pros and cons, and the prices are close to each other (and to CLEAR, actually). What makes DSL and RoadRunner stand out is that I don't need to sign a term agreement with either to get a fairly reasonable price, and both companies provide pretty consistent service (you have some idea of what you're getting). With CLEAR, I don't know what kind of service to expect, and so far I don't have enough good reports to make a good decision. If you ask me, I would stick to DSL or RoadRunner until CLEAR gets past its growing pains. If you absolutely must have mobile Internet service, CLEAR may be worth trying. However, I would be very reluctant to sign any term agreement without a guarantee of service quality for the duration of the agreement. It would also help if CLEAR would make its coverage map their web site available in a non-Flash format for those who care about security and are open source advocates.

That, in a nutshell, is my opinion about CLEAR. I may go down to the local store and talk to someone there - I may consider changing ISPs if they let me have equipment and access without an agreement (perhaps a 30 day evaluation) and that it was all completely refundable (no termination fee) if it didn't work to my liking.

Update February 13, 2010:

I started looking further into CLEAR's web site, and it appears that the two-year agreement is currently more prevalent on the mobile plans. In the home or home office plans, the two-year agreement gives you a free receiver ("modem"), apparently, with no monthly service charges. According to their representative on chat, there are no additional taxes/fees aside from sales tax. I'll believe this when I see it, but that's what they're saying.

Linux is supported, but you have to dig deep to find any indication of this. The only place I was able to see this is when I looked at the specs on the device. Their online chat person verified this. Those of you with Windows or MacOS should be careful not to be too smug about this because any OS-specific problems could leave you in a similar situation when you upgrade your computer to new OS revisions. It is important for an Internet provider to be just that - an Internet provider. What operating system you use should not be an issue. That goes for any ISP - CLEAR, at&t, Time Warner, whatever.

Now for the bad news: There is a lot of talk on the broadbandreports.com forums about CLEAR service, and much of it is not positive. Now I know that the people with problems generally scream louder than those who don't, but what people are saying here are exactly what I have come to expect. The biggest complaint is the signal strength and overall performance. I covered that pretty well earlier. A really bad revelation is that they are considering connecting to the "modem" and modifying the configuration a violation of the terms of service. They have also done updates that have left people unable to turn off the network address translation (NAT), preventing people from using their own firewall and can no longer allow incoming connections to the customer equipment (what people were calling "port forwarding", which is kind of a misnomer). This is bad, because I would no longer be able to connect to my system via ssh if they did this.

In short: After about 2 hours of looking carefully (again) at the CLEAR web site, what people are saying in general on forums, and at the price and potential quality of service, I am still advising against going with CLEAR yet. They need to get past their growing pains if they're going to be a viable alternative to wired broadband, in my opinion.

I am particularly disappointed in the growing trend toward ISPs dictating what content they will allow on their networks. By content, I am talking about restricting service to specific operating systems, preventing incoming connections to home/small business computers, limiting total usage in a month, and trying to restrict the use of multimedia and/or gaming applications. I unhappily submit that this trend will probably continue, because it is in the interest of our government to apply increasing controls to prevent what they consider to be unacceptable speech, and very much in the interests of the ISPs to direct our usage toward advertising and other business-specific access. While this clearly is against what made the Internet what it is, people have been willing to allow companies like Adobe and Microsoft control what they do on the Internet with very little resistance. I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this is what you get when you allow groups with such powers to exercise control of a communications medium. Look at what has happened with TV and radio, for example, and look at the taxes and fees various governmental jurisdictions in the U.S. have assessed on telephone usage. My own opinion is that we are quickly and methodically watching the Internet become what other media has become, despite what the YouTube generation may think...

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