Wireless Broadband: Setting The BarThursday, August 18, 2005
First, I want to welcome Sprint to the wireless broadband world with its rollout of CDMA2000 1xEV-DO that will continue through 2006. Now I'm waiting for the first word that Cingular is moving ahead with its own high-speed wireless data services using UMTS/HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access). It will be great to have three network operators competing for our high-speed business.
Over the next few months I will be running some tests comparing the new Sprint services with those already offered by Verizon Wireless. I will compare system speeds, latency and, most important of all, coverage. When Cingular comes online I will be repeat these tests on its network. Obviously, I won't be able to test in every city, but many people have offered to help by sharing their test results and experiences with me.
This brings me to the topic for this week. Verizon Wireless has set a very high bar for wireless high-speed data coverage. One example is what it has accomplished in the Los Angeles to San Diego area.
Since I was to travel from Santa Barbara to San Diego, I explored the possibility of using Amtrak. A review of the schedule showed the trip was 5 hours and 32 minutes (you East-coasters are spoiled!). Getting there by plane would mean changing planes in LA, so the total travel time including time at the airport would be about 4 hours, and driving takes about 4 hours and 30 minutes. So I booked a round-trip business-class seat for less than $100 and prepared for my train ride.
When I boarded the train in Santa Barbara, I found that in addition to a tray table, I had a 110 VAC outlet at my seat. I set up my laptop, plugged in my Sierra Wireless EV-DO Aircard on the Verizon network and fired up the system.
During the first leg of the trip, from Santa Barbara to just before Oxnard, I had CDMA2000 1X coverage but no EV-DO (Verizon does not yet have spectrum in Santa Barbara County for EV-DO) so I was experiencing between 50 and 100 Kbps of data with no drop-outs or interruptions in service.
After we left the Ventura station, I started watching my screen to see if I could tell when I came into EV-DO range. The answer popped up about 10 minutes before we arrived at the Oxnard station. From that point on, except for a few drops in signal (see below), I was constantly in EV-DO coverage. The train takes a route though LA County stopping at Burbank, Glendale and then on into the main LA station. During this portion of the trip, I lost my EV-DO connection three times -- we went through tunnels twice and once, just south of Glendale, the signal went back to 1X for a few minutes and then back to EV-DO.
Leaving LA, we went through Orange County, making several stops along the way. This area is a basin between tall mountains and the ocean. The train takes a route that includes some very rural and rough terrain, and then makes its way toward the coast again. During this segment of the trip, I did not lose EV-DO coverage at all according to a measure I hate -- the signal bars that show on the screen. I went from full scale to one bar in several places, but never lost the signal altogether and I never saw it go back to 1X.
There was one stretch between San Clemente and Oceanside where the signal was a single bar for about 15 minutes, but it was still usable and I was able to continue my tests, check my email, access the Internet and keep working. Once we entered Oceanside, coverage was back to full scale and remained at or near full scale until we were in the station in downtown San Diego.
The total time I was logged on to the Verizon network for this trip was 5 hours and 39 minutes. I was out of any coverage for a total of 4 minutes (tunnels) and was in EV-DO range a total of 4 hours and 59 minutes. The distance between the two cities is 219 miles and according to the conductor, the speed varies between zero and 80 miles per hour.
I have used the Verizon Wireless network in many different cities, inside hotels, at airports and inside buildings at meetings and I find the coverage to be excellent. I have also been collecting reports from people using EV-DO in other parts of the United States and they are encouraging. For example, one report was that EV-DO is usable from New York City to Philadelphia, and someone camping in Rhode Island had great coverage at the campground. Most recently, we obtained an EV-DO card for one of our partners, Bob Hirsh, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla. He has good coverage in his house and his most recent email was sent to me from his car outside a shopping center. (Guess his wife was inside spending all his money!)
Verizon Wireless has an advantage today. It has been offering high-speed wireless services longer than any other company and has already gone back and beefed up many of its coverage areas. Sprint and Cingular will have to play catch-up.
This is a model the others will have to match if they want to be competitive with their wireless high-speed networks. I am sure they are up to the task, but it will take time -- Verizon didn't reach this level of service overnight (nor is it stopping here). The good news is that the first player set the bar and I believe the others have no choice but to follow its lead, which means we should have great additional wireless high-speed data services available to us.By the end of 2005, I expect to see all three network operators being really aggressive with their coverage for high-speed data, and I suspect that by a year from now most of us will have superior high-speed services wherever we travel. For now, this is a "well done" for Verizon Wireless, and a challenge to Sprint and Cingular.