Sunday, December 17, 2006
Hookups That Let You Violate Service Terms Anywhere

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 17, 2006; F04

Nobody laughs at the idea of replacing a land-line phone with a cellphone, so why should the idea of ditching a ground-bound broadband Internet connection in favor of a high-speed data service from your cellphone provider seem ridiculous?

It shouldn't -- at least if you only look at the technology involved.

The wireless carriers' data services once struggled to keep up with dial-up modems, but Cingular, Sprint and Verizon now sell connections that run as fast as many consumer broadband offerings.

Unlike DSL, cable or satellite-based access, these wireless services aren't nailed down to your home. You can take your hookup with you, logging on from anywhere a carrier's data signal reaches.

Monthly fees of $60 or $80 for unlimited use, twice as much as most cable or DSL costs, reflect that added utility but can seem high to consumers who pay closer to $30 or $40 for a high-speed home connection. Then again, if your only high-speed option so far has been a satellite link, wireless broadband might save you a few bucks.

But there's still a catch: Only one of the three wireless providers -- Sprint-- actually lets you employ your Internet connection as you wish. The other two impose a variety of arbitrary rules that can get your access yanked in a hurry.

The connections run on different wireless technologies -- Cingular uses one called HSDPA while the others employ another named EV-DO -- but they all offer the same promise: a fast, nearly instant connection.

They tend to be a bit slower than many cable or DSL accounts, but are still eminently usable and far more portable than a home connection or even WiFi at the corner coffee shop.

Locally, Verizon's BroadbandAccess has the best coverage, serving the vast majority of the Washington area; Sprint's Mobile Broadband coverage map isn't much less extensive than Verizon's, while Cingular's 3G suffers larger gaps in rural areas. Still, all three already reach many neighborhoods where only one or no kinds of land-based broadband have been available until now.

These companies also provide the same coverage in many other cities across the country.

As for the other two nationwide wireless carriers: Nextel won't add a broadband service, while T-Mobile plans to launch its own over the next two years.

Cingular and Verizon charge $80 a month for unmetered use, while Sprint charges $60. Connecting to all three requires either plugging a PC Card into a laptop -- usually, a $50 purchase -- or buying a phone that can be "tethered" to a computer via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless. (If you only need data service, not voice calling, and don't own a laptop, only Sprint sells a receiver that plugs into a computer's USB port.)

You also have to install the carrier's connection software. Cingular and Verizon's applications came with a strange side effect: Their practice of compressing images in Web pages for faster downloads made photos look blurry and muddy.

Over a week of testing, these three services delivered a similar experience in such locations as a home in Arlington, The Post's downtown offices and National Airport. Each took no more than six seconds to connect, then provided a stream of fast bandwidth that almost always flowed for as long as needed.

Data didn't flow at a constant rate with any of these services, but download rates were often faster than entry-level DSL and sometimes beat the advertised speeds of 400 to 700 kilobits per second. Upload rates ran about one-third or one-fourth as fast.

Even the slowest of those connections was rapid enough for any everyday Internet task: Web browsing, e-mail and Internet radio all worked as they did over my home DSL connection. Skype Internet-phone calls sounded fine; these connections even played TV episodes from ABC's Web site, although I sometimes had to downshift to a smaller video size to avoid stutters or dropouts.

It's too bad that I had to violate Cingular's and Verizon's terms of service to run most of those tests. While Sprint's "unlimited" plan really is, Cingular and Verizon only allow certain kinds of use.

Both of those firms' "terms and conditions" documents explicitly bar streaming or downloading any audio, video or games. Renting a movie from Amazon's Unbox service, listening to a Web radio station, calling somebody via Skype, sending a TV show to your laptop via a Slingbox or playing a round of poker online-- they're all banned.

Verizon also limits its users to five gigabytes of data transfer a month.

Verizon and Cingular's signals are their property, and they can sell access to them as they see fit. But these restrictions are wildly illogical. On what planet does listening to a new song online deserve to be forbidden for hogging bandwidth, while downloading a 200-megabyte Service Pack update for Windows is permitted?

If these companies really are concerned about greedy downloaders abusing their networks, they could simply set an explicit usage cap like Verizon's -- then, unlike Verizon, provide software that warns you when you're about to max out. Or they could imitate the HughesNet satellite service's policy of throttling back the download speeds of users who gobble too much bandwidth. Or they could just charge extra for faster service.

What drives Cingular and Verizon to engage in this kind of control-freak behavior? It's hard to overlook this issue: Unlike Sprint, they're both run by companies -- AT&T and Verizon -- that provide DSL over traditional phone lines, which might be threatened by wireless broadband if it got too popular.

You might think that these firms could simply recognize that they're in the communications business, not the stringing-wires-to-people's-homes business. But the Phone Company mindset seems hard for some people to abandon.