High-speed Internet access through cellular phone networks

I’m a T-Mobile Hotspot subscriber, but I cannot say I’m particularly happy with it. Reliability is in general pretty good, but there have been a few times a certain hotspot has been flaky, and these tend to be the times I needed access the most. It’s also a pain to have to go somewhere to get Internet access, especially when, for example, I don’t like Starbuck’s coffee. I rather have the Internet come to me.

EnterEVDO. It’s a 3rd generation cellular technology that allows for broadband-like speeds, typically almost everywhere you have a cellular phone signal. There are different speeds depending on what network is available in a particular location:

  • 1xRTT, allowing for 144 Kbps/144 Kbps download/upload speeds
  • EVDO 1x Rev 0, allowing for 2.45 Mbps/150 Kbps
  • EVDO 1x Rev A, allowing for 3.1 Mbps/1.8 Mbps speeds.

All three types of networks are available can be found in the United States, and a typical provider’s access plan lets you roam between them anywhere in the country for free.

Access comes through a provider-specific modem (i.e. you cannot use one provider’s modem with another provider). These usually are PCMCIA cards, reminiscent of the 802.11b network cards people used before WiFi was built-into notebook computers. Connection to a provider usually is provided throughPPPsoftware. Most the modems available on the market today are a little oddball: they expose a USB controller, which then exposes a USB serial interface which controls a virtual modem. Yes, it’s strange, especially when these devices aren’t actually modems (there is no MOdulation or DEModulation taking place, the devices are more “network bridges”), but thankfully it allows these devices to easily work with alternative operating systems like Linux and MacOS X.

In the USA, there are essentially three major EVDO providers: Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Alltell, with Sprint and Verizon having the largest networks by far. What differentiates the Sprint and Verizon, I think, is pricing and policies. If you do not want to sign a contract, both providers cost the same. If you want to sign a contract for 2 yrs, you only get a discount rate with Verizon if you’ve a qualifying voice plan—Sprint has no such limitation to get a discounted rate.

Verizon does a bit of questionable marketing: they advertise their service as “unlimited,” but they pull a trick often used in contract writing and specifically define “unlimited” as 5 GB/month. If you go over this limit, you’re breaking Verizon’s terms of service. Verizon often cancels subscribers accounts, and assumes you are a criminal, downloading illegal music or software. An article in the Washington Post, Bandwidth Bandit, discusses about one subscriber’s woes. Their terms of service disallows many popular Internet applications as well, such as VoIP, video conferencing, or any online gaming. Sprint’s terms of service are more vague and do not explicitly disallow these things, but reports from their subscribers say that they don’t have unreasonably low bandwidth limits nor have draconian policy enforcement assuming you guilty until proven innocent.

This wouldn’t be a good summary without me discussing what new bleeding-edge technology was right around the corner. EVDO Rev B, allowing for at least 4.9 Mbps/1.8 Mbps speeds, has been deployed in a few places in Asia, but given how backward North America tends to be in technology adoption, won’t be in the United States anytime soon. WiMAX, a 4th generation cellular technology allowing for speeds of at least 10 Mbps, will probably take the place of EVDO. Sprint is the only major provider dedicated to building a WiMAX network, with plans to begin deployment at the end of 2007.

Some external links with good information:


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