WiMAX Beats Wi-Fi (with a big stick!) in Mountain View Wireless Speed Test

Now that Clearwire and Sprint have apparently picked up the pace on delivering more places where you can access the partners’ WiMAX wireless broadband service (including Nashville, Tenn., as of Wednesday), we decided to take the connectivity toys Clearwire has lent us and do an ad-hoc comparison of connectivity speeds, pitting Clearwire’s 4G service against the free Wi-Fi offered by Starbucks.

First, some caveats: The WiMAX service in Silicon Valley is part of Clearwire’s innovation network, and not a true commercial service like that now available in 53 markets around the country. But with the company’s announcement this week that services may be rolled out as towers come online, we thought it fair game to see how the down-Peninsula network was holding up. Our testing spot of choice was the Starbucks outlet in Charleston Plaza, a prefab big-box mall with an REI outlet and a pet store. While not scenic the Starbucks nevertheless had a nice selection of outdoor tables, one of which we took over for our Tuesday afternoon speed-comparison extravaganza.

First up for testing was the Clear Spot 4G+ Personal Hotspot, on loan from Clearwire. This device is the Clearwire-branded version of the Overdrive pocketspot that Sierra Wireless first built for Sprint, an incredibly handy device that automagically will connect to the Sprint 3G network if WiMAX isn’t available. Here in Mountain View, we know we’re fairly close to the 4G towers Clearwire put in near Google’s campus which is just the other side of 101. It works by grabbing a WiMAX (or 3G) signal on the back end, and then broadcasting broadband in a personal Wi-Fi “cloud” to as many as five other devices. After a quick stop at a splash screen to register the device we were off and running, zooming past 4 Mbps on the download and getting about 500 Kbps on the upload.

CLEAR SPOT 4G + TEST:

Next we turned off the Clear Spot and searched our available Wi-Fi networks list for the Starbucks Wi-Fi (which was listed as AT&T, and apparently was one of the former Wayport hotspots). After logging in and clicking away from the latte-flavored Starbucks content screen, we tested the Wi-Fi connection and found it adequate (and even better on the uplink), but nowhere close to the Clear Spot link for download speeds:

STARBUCKS/AT&T WI-FI TEST:

While we were searching wireless networks, we saw an unsecured link advertised as Google Wi-Fi — probably a remnant of the Wi-Fi network Google built for its corporate hometown. (Since the Starbucks was next to a Chipolte outlet, maybe Googlers pushed for a nearby connection so they could stay on the net while they grabbed an off-campus burrito.) Whatever the reason, the Google Wi-Fi was a little faster that the Starbucks link, but nowhere near the Clear Spot for download speed:

GOOGLE WI-FI TEST:

Next we turned off the Wi-Fi antenna and inserted a USB modem also lent to us by the folks at Clearwire (an older CMU-300 model built by Franklin Wireless) that can connect to either 3G or 4G services. Sidecut readers may have seen us put this device through some earlier tests when the Silicon Valley network was just getting off the ground. Anyway, the question of what service you want if speed matters was answered pretty quickly. We’ll let the numbers to the talking:

CLEARWIRE USB MODEM TEST:

We also did a test on the Sprint 3G service available from the USB modem, and it tested out at 1.31 Mbps for the download and ~500 Kbps for the upload, comparable to Wi-Fi.

Overall, it’s pretty amazing sometimes when you stop and think of all the broadband choices that may be available to you in any given location. (We are guessing that AT&T and Verizon most likely have 3G data services available in the area, though we are also guessing that their speeds would be the functional equivalent of Sprint’s 3G network.) But it’s also clear even from our completely non-scientific little test that there is a leap of magnitude in going from existing technologies to the 4G wireless services just now hitting the airwaves. As we say, let the testing begin!

About Paul Kapustka

Paul Kapustka is a longtime journalist who has spent more than two decades covering the information technology business, Paul most recently has been focusing on mobility and how it has changed the computing and collaborative landscape. His newest project outside Mobile Enterprise 360 is a research and analysis operation called WiFi Journal. He is also editor in chief of Mobile Sports Report, which covers the intersection of mobile technology and sports business. Paul is also the founder of Sidecut Reports, a research firm that covered the emergence of 4G technology in the cellular marketplace.

Comments

  1. Apples and Oranges says

    It should be pointed out that the Starbucks wifi access point that you tested has a T1 backhaul limiting downstream and upstream to a mere 1.5mbit in both directions, while Clear’s towers utilize Dragonwave PTP links, giving them anywhere from 50Mbit to 1.6Gbit depending on how it’s licensed and what bandwidth is available at the head-end NOC. This isn’t really a “fair” test to be blunt.

    Additionally, most of the starbucks APs in existence are still running lecagy 802.11g chipsets further limiting throughput to about 10Mbit of usable over-the-air rates. If you were to stack WiMAX against a current generation 802.11n deployment of comparable quality and identical backhauls, I believe you’d find that 802.11n would easily outperform the current generation of WiMAX.

  2. Dear basket o’ fruit, you are the one missing the point — how is it not a fair test? All I was doing was measuring the services that are being offered. If any of the providers want to change their backhaul or radios to improve performance, they are free to do so — this is called the free market version of commerce.

    This isn’t some theoretical test about what technology woulda, coulda or shoulda been used. It’s a test of what you get when the rubber meets the road. Or the bandwidth meets the modem. And that is all that matters when it comes down to consumer choice, correct?

  3. To me it appears to be a comparison of ISP (at&t vs clear) rather than wimax vs wi-fi. In the first test, you did use wi-fi for access with a wimax backhaul.
    Novarum’s study would show you that the key differentiator is the assymetric service of wimax vs symmetric service of wi-fi

  4. The other point to look at is price — the GoogleWiFi network is free and can be found across the entire city. (By the way, it is not a remnant but a thriving, heavily used community resource.)

    How much do you have to pay for the WiMax networks ?

  5. Free vs. paid is a good consideration, but it wasn’t what was being compared here. This ad hoc test was about pure speed.

    For many I am guessing that the “free” Google or Starbux speed is fine and dandy. But free also means no guarantees. For folks who absolutely need access without guessing, paying for a reliable source is the way to go. And if you need more speed, you might want to look at the nascent 4G services since they appear to blow the old bandwidth away.

    And since Clear’s WiMAX service prices are all over the map due to different promotions in different markets, it’s hard to pin down one price. But I believe the single mobile service is around $50 a month, sometimes less with discounts. The average 3G data contract is around $60 a month, with 5 Gb per month data caps.

  6. The test and article is a perfectly valid comparison of wireless broadband options. But the post’s headline was pure tabloid gold, pulling in everyone to read the entire piece. Bravo.

    There’s a lot of moving parts in a wireless network, only two of which are the layer 1 and 2 technologies used to connect devices at the edge of the network.

  7. Thanks Craig for your backhanded compliments. A few more of those and maybe I could afford a cup of Starbucks coffee.

  8. Paul, I think the problem that most people are having is this: the headline is not representative of what the article states.

    The headline infers a comparisons between technologies. The article is about comparing services.

  9. Eric, sorry but I don’t see the distinction that some of the rest of you appear to see. It is a comparision between the technologies that are behind the service offerings. This isn’t a lab or a standards meeting. It’s the real world, and here are the speeds supported by the differing technologies (and the operators that use them). Tell me again what is incorrect about the headline or how it is different from what the article is about. One service uses WiMAX, the other Wi-Fi. And one is unquestionably faster than the other. Any disconnect is in the preconceived notions of the self-confused reader.

  10. Paul,
    I’m sorry if you took offense. I really did mean Bravo! This is the most commented on post in MuniWireless for over a month. Your headline drew people in and got them to engage in a debate about the technologies and your testing methods.

    Speaking of the real world, if you compared the OptimumWiFi network built in the NYC area against your set of networks out in Silicon Valley, it would compare very favorably on performance, price and maybe even mobility. That’s my real world. Built of 802.11G APs that have DOCSIS 2.0 modems, simple tuning can allow that network to blow away the WIMAX network’s performance.

    My point was that network performance and customer satisfaction depend on much more than what the wireless edge of the network is made of.

    What is great is that we are now seeing options for outside the home broadband access, and consumers can begin to make choices between different levels of service and price. In NY, we have the following options:

    Bundled Wi-Fi access from Verizon, Cablevision, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable.

    Clearwire/Sprint/Time Warner Cable’s 4G WIMAX imminent launching in this market.

    HSPA+ from T-Mobile and ATT.

    Possibly LTE from VZW and MetroPCS.

    Lastly, the existing 3G networks from VZW, Sprint, ATT and T-Mobile.

    It will become more interesting when the LTE networks emerge with their tiered pricing. Consumers will have a lot of factors and pricing to juggle when making their choice of broadband providers both in and out of their homes.

    As you so aptly said, “Let the testing begin!”

  11. Craig,

    You are using 802.11G? That’s yesterday’s technology. Didn’t you read Ken Biba’s guidelines on deploying large scale networks using 802.11n? Here it is:
    http://www.muniwireless.com/2010/01/10/guidelines-for-successful-large-scale-outdoor-wifi-networks/

    Novarum has tested a lot of networks and done extensive testing on 802.11n versus other flavours of 802.11. The tests show that 2×2 MIMO 802.11n delivers far better performance than G. Here’s a summary of their measurements:

    http://www.muniwireless.com/2009/02/23/80211n-dramatically-improves-outdoor-wifi/

    Esme

  12. Does WiMAX truly beat Wi-Fi with a big stick? There are three things to consider 1) DL/UL speed; 2) speed with the network loaded; and 3) user experience. The WiMAX speeds tested for the DL are on the low end of the target, should be 10+Mbps and 1.5Mbps sustained, and the UL is slow, should be half the DL speed.

    2×2 MIMO has the bandwidth (BW) to easily surpass the present WiMAX technology, and BW is what’s needed for a loaded network with many users DLing and ULing content, especially rich content that demands BW. But readily available 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi “on-the-street” simply isn’t available – this is enterprise “affordable” technology, unfortunately. As a user, my main interests are A) network availability to connect; and B) using either a PC/Mac or handset, does the experience meet my expectations regarding latency, DLing/ULing files and surfing the Cloud.

    Since the WiMAX network can be used for both wireless (i.e. handset) and cable-replacement services – a business model that help to support this technology’s roll-out – will the experience be comparable to my 3G (handset) + cable (PC/TV), and when will the other (non-Internet surfing) services be available? These are the finer points of using WiMAX, in addition to bringing it into the present ecosystem of technologies.

    As I recall, you can obtain a WiMAX data plan by the hour, day, month or year, without a commitment as a mobile user. $40-60/mth is typical for the mobile user, but I’m not sure what the cost will be if I’m at home (or at work) watching a movie and checking my emails. There may be a need for femto-cells once these other services roll-out to accommodate the BW usage by the home user.

  13. Paul, the distinction is that WiMax does not in fact beat WiFi. The distinction in your test was that Starbucks’ connection was limited on purpose and in that scenario WiMax did produce faster speeds because of the limitation. Your headline implies an overarching win for WiMax regardless of the scenario, which simply is incorrect.

    I appreciate the article and what you intended to put across 🙂

  14. Apples and Oranges says

    This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a “real world” test, it’s a single sampling of data. I can run down the street to another Starbucks that has an DSL2+ backhaul and get 15Mbit and although Clear claims to have coverage, can’t even connect…If you’re going to compare wifi to wimax or even starbucks/attwifi to Clear, you need to take at least a few samplings of data, otherwise you’re just trolling for traffic with misleading headlines.

  15. It’s as real world as it gets — as in going out into the real world and running tests and seeing the results. The proof is in the pudding, folks. If you want to show me a Starbucks Wi-Fi that can beat 8 Mbps, go there and run a Speedtest. Happy to compile any and all such tests. Let’s see who whacks who.

    Until then the headline and the test are correct and we stand by the story. Watch this space for more fun tests later this week!

  16. I guess that’s why you have to write in an open forum because no editor would allow you to publish such crap in their sites where they have writing standards. Everyone on this board is correct except you. And if you can’t see or admit your own deficiency in your “experiment”, how can you even advance this discussion on an intelligent/productive level? “…show me a Starbucks Wi-Fi that can beat 8Mbps…” Really? You are ludicrous. Mr. Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il comes to mind.

    But I actually would like to see some credible comparisons between WiMax and Wi-Fi, though.

  17. Hey DW, you’re the troll who has to hide behind an anonymous moniker, not me. Maybe you can get someone to read you the part of the main post where I distinctly said this was an “unscientific test” and an “ad hoc” comparison of speeds. That’s pretty much admitting that it’s just a small look at speeds and not some definitive test. But since I’m the one who did the actual tests, what exactly is it that I’m “wrong” about? And how else would you “compare” WiMAX and Wi-Fi in a way that’s “credible?” What’s more credible than sitting in the same spot and testing both services?

    What would be great is if everyone who sits back and criticizes goes out and measures speeds for themselves, and contributes to the conversation with meaningful data, instead of personal attacks. Thanks so much for the comparisons to the world leaders whose interactive skills you seem to cherish. You really advanced the discussion there, pal.

  18. Belated reply to Eric Warnke and others who feel the way he does: The headline does NOT imply “an overarching win for WiMAX regardless of the scenario.” The headline says WiMAX beats Wi-Fi IN MOUNTAIN VIEW. Meaning, in one place at one time.

    Thanks, Eric, for the compliment about the post. If anyone else wants to run similar tests, send them to me and I will craft more of these posts. The more testing, the better!

  19. Dennis Holmes says

    Ok guys, let’s try to keep this civil. There is no need for name calling. I think what you fail to understand here Paul is that most of the folks on this website are engineers by trade. We find it humorous when people make statements like “WiMax beats Wi-Fi in Mountain View”. You make a statement that should have been WiMax beats Starbucks Wi-Fi. Barnes and Noble Wi-Fi might crush WiMax. The public library Wi-Fi might crush WiMax or vice versa.
    What you do show is a very important facet of the wireless mystique. Everything is about the user experience! Users don’t care about WiMax, Wi-Fi, bandwidth speeds, upload, download, sideways…etc. They only care about the experience that they get when they open the browser.
    When comparing technologies under a dense client load in a properly designed network, Wi-Fi will dramatically outperform WiMax. The rubber meets the road on cost however. Urban areas perform better with Wi-Fi while rural areas (because of range and the sparse number of clients)is the WiMax sweet spot. There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. I feel, and have stated several times on this and other publications in the past, the WiMax and Wi-Fi are technologies that compliment each other more than they are competitors.
    I anxiously await the coming technologies on client devices that will allow the user to automatically select the fastest connection available in a particular locale. This will be the first true enhancement of the client experience and is currently under development by several vendors. Who cares if it’s Wi-Fi, WiMax, LTE, or Super Wi-Fi? The user just wants it to be fast and free.

  20. Dennis — if and when someone can provide me examples where Wi-Fi networks “crush” WiMAX I’ll be happy to post the results. I see this as the Packers vs. the Bears. Everyone in Green Bay probably still thinks they have a better football team; but the Bears won the game.

    I think users do and should care about which technology they rely on, since as you put it they are good for different things in different places. I don’t have a stake in this game, one way or the other. I just measure and report. Seems like a better way to help folks make a purchasing decision than by referring to some theoretical possibility (“properly designed network”) that doesn’t readily exist in the real world.

  21. damnweirdo says

    Ok Paul, I’ll quit with the personal attacks. But you got me back with your “troll” comment. That hurt. The point here is that you can’t and should not make irrelevant comparisons and assert it as a technical-quasi-technical evaluation whatsoever. It confuses people too easily. Starbucks wi-fi probably doesn’t even have an 8Mbs back-haul, and their client side is limited/configured to 1 to 1.5Mb max. Can wifi be configured for 8Mbs? You bet. And in fact in a coffee shop distance, wi-fi (802.11n) can easily be configured for 50Mbs. Techs have made 10 mile links at 100Mbs out in the field. Whereas this iteration of Wimax, the maximum thru-put is 12Mbs advertised. So technically as a standard, WiFi is superior, but for now Wimax appears to be a better technology due to current market(Clear) roll-out. But understand Starbucks wifi is how many years old? They are using 802.11b/g. My max outdoor wi-fi(802.11b) connection has been 4Mbs using a laptop, but the same link was 8Mbs which was my back-haul limit, using an external client–atheros chipsets.

    It’s not really a wimax vs. wifi competition–both can be used to deliver any service, it’s really about roi for the service provider–equipment mfg, and market demand on the bandwidth side. The jury is still out if wimax can actually deliver anything more than wifi. With the 65Ghz spectrum, wifi will be able to deliver 1Gbs and more. That’s insane. Perhaps instead of posting here fragments I should spend the time to do a thoughtful comparison of the current speeds and future speeds of both, and how LTE fits into this picture.

  22. DW, if you follow the drift of my testing posts you will see one constant: I am not at all interested in the theoretical possibilities or potentials of one technology vs. another. What I am interested in is the rubber meeting the road — who is delivering what, and how they are doing so.

    Is it more accurate to say Clearwire’s dusting Starbucks in these comparisons, rather than WiMAX vs. Wi-Fi? Maybe. But I will stress there is no *error* in what I am saying — that on that day, in that place, at that time, one technology used by one carrier provided a better service than another technology/carrier choice.

    Is there some reason why Wi-Fi isn’t being used to its potential by service providers, coffee shops or anyone else who would provide bandwidth? I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that for all the talk about theoretical speeds and possible implementations, I haven’t seen anyone step up and show examples of these things happening in the real world. My goal is to help (in a small way) the potential consumers find the best services that are actually out there, not ponder some blue-sky possibility that isn’t ever going to happen.

    Is there more to the story, explaining why different service providers offer different options? Why Starbucks and AT&T are using outdated technology? Sure. We’re just getting started with this meme, after all. Your great technical explanation of the backhaul limits begs the question — why does Starbucks and AT&T offer such a poor implementation of a great technology? To me there is no shortage of stories or angles to explore when you start with some simple data points.

  23. Damnweirdo says

    Paul,

    It is very clear you will defend an indefensible position to your grave. And you have never taken a simple logic 101 class.

    “DW, if you follow the drift of my testing posts you will see one constant: I am not at all interested in the theoretical possibilities or potentials of one technology vs. another. What I am interested in is the rubber meeting the road — who is delivering what, and how they are doing so.”

    I never stated the “theoretical” possibilties, but instead actual field results. Theoretical numbers would blow your little mind to pieces on this.

    You’re right it should be Clear vs. AT&T, and not WiMax vs. WiFi. You don’t know enough about either to really know what’s going on.

    I get it: the rubber meets the road, but define that. There’s a cable customer who has subscribed to all of the premium channels, and there is that cable customer who has only the basic package. But they are both happy. If you ask me, that’s where the rubber meets the road. To say that the Premium channels is where it’s at, and that it beats the basic package, well geez how dumb are you for pointing that out.

    You’re a worthless journalist if you call it that because Esme Vos publishes you. Why?

    and p.s. I think USI is the biggest and best muniwireless in the country? admited by even Esme. USI uses Wi-Fi, and not WiMax.

  24. Damnweirdo says

    but I agree, there is alot of work to be done on the CALEA thing but Cloud computing might solve all of our problems, shortly.

  25. DW, it’s clear from the resumption of the personal attacks that this isn’t about download speeds anymore for you, just a fun way to criticize someone. My name is on my posts. I’ve been a “worthless journalist” for 20 years, in many places besides MW. You are entitled to your opinion of my work, but hiding behind a pseudonym is a weak way to express it. Are you so unsure of your comments that you have to hide your identity?

    Please, if you don’t have anything pertinent to add to the conversation about download speeds and service provider offerings, do us all a favor and find another place to spew venom. I’m sure the rest of the readers here are more interested in facts than your confused ramblings.

  26. Very interesting posts. I agree the headline is a bit miss leading but the comparison of real world services is valid at that location. As a service provider my self I have used various combinations of WiFi, WiMax, and proprietary microwave tech. I think WiMax is a great technology from the stand point of the service provider because you can easily control the quality of service which translates to good user experience. As a result I have been able to virtually guarantee level of service in the last mile.

    As an access layer technology, Wifi has the best performance in terms raw speed and latency and has been versatile in both indoor and outdoor environments. There is no one size fits all best wireless technology and how a service provider chooses to design and implement the technology gives you the real world service

  27. Dennis Holmes says

    Paul,

    I only stop by here infrequently now as the site has become more about marketing and less about science and RF. You asked about real proof of WiFi crushing WiMax. Go to Novarum’s website and download the actual testing data. Scientific testing I might add. You will see the scientific data proves that in dense deployments of users WiFi destroys the WiMax myth. Like I stated before, WiMax has its place and that place is rural areas where range and distance make deploying WiFi cost prohibitive and in the smart grid arena where utilities can buy their own spectrm.

  28. Mathilde Benveniste says

    A more appropriate title for your article might have been: “Backhaul slows WiFi access below WiMax speeds at the Starbucks outlet in Charleston Plaza”. By any chance, have you done any comparison tests indoors?

  29. Mathilde, let’s hope you don’t write headlines for a living. The Vegas test was indoors — to answer your anticipated but unasked question, I don’t see much dropoff of the WiMAX speeds inside coffeeshops.

    Still waiting for anyone else to post a test of those Wi-Fi nirvana places where backhaul is abundant and lattes are free.

  30. Dennis Holmes says

    Paul,

    Take a look at this for REAL scientific testing. By the way, WiMaxis working inside coffee shops very well because they are GLASS windows. 1db loss at the most. Real world science still shows the different market segments each technology supports best.

    http://novarum.com/documents/Guidelines%20for%20Large%20Scale%20Outdoor%20WiFi%202010.pdf

  31. Dennis, that REAL scientific testing was testing Wi-Fi vs. REAL OLD pre-WiMAX (aka fixed WiMAX) implementations, so I am not sure how this REAL SCIENTIFIC stuff pertains to anything we are talking about.

    And it still showed coffeeshop Wi-Fi averaging around 1 to 1.5 Mbps download speeds, so my “unscientific” measurements seem to track the REAL ones pretty closely. Despite your evidence I don’t see any REAL WORLD examples of Wi-Fi in public spots delivering an advanced broadband service.

    Can’t wait to see how Verizon’s LTE services stack up against this mix.

  32. Dennis Holmes says

    Verizon has tested LTE speeds up to 15mb to the phone so yes it will outperform either when a strong signal is seen (like glass sided coffee shops). Go two walls deep in the building and just like WiMax it begins to diminish exponentially and again you are down to the” close radio works better” design of WLAN.
    Oh, Paul, 802.16d vs 802.16e is really not what was tested. Both d and e networks were tested and the data listed as “best” was from “as deployed” 802.16e networks which as I recall was the basis for your first article. “As deployed” means just you sitting in a coffee shop and how you perceive the network connection. It may have been older 802.16e devices but I can assure you the numbers don’t lie. These numbers were compared against all other “real world” broadband deployments and the data is presented to the reader for his or her interpretation. The data is clear. This along with spectrum ownership is exactly why WiMax is not flourishing all across the country.
    The WiMax /LTE war is now over as well with LTE easily winning this one due to lower redeployment costs for Verizon and other carriers (including Sprint and Clear which have voiced their interests in moving to LTE). WiMax is rapidly becoming a small ISP /Smart Grid play as licenses can be acquired by power companies fairly inexpensively from the big spectrum holders to replace aging SCADA systems.
    Ultimately, it all comes down to user experience or as we like to coin the phrase “Quality of Experience” (QoE). QoE determines how the user actually perceives the network he or she is on. If the backhaul is slow on the fastest wireless connection in the world, the user still says the network is slow. So, the theory of relativity takes hold. The speed you perceive of a network technology is relative to the speed on the other networks you have tried. End result, if the coffee shop WiMax network seems faster to you, in your limited reality experience, it is faster.
    Just my perspective.