Broadband to Go

Page 5 of 10

Fast, But Less Reliable

When reception was good, we generally had positive experiences with streaming audio and video, and Voice-over-IP audio came through just fine. But when the signal was weak or we had interference issues, video would drop out altogether, and VoIP calls became garbled or incoherent. A better bet was instant messaging, which never felt any different than it did at home or at the office.

We also tried out the service in moving cars and trains. According to Verizon, speeds are supposed to be much slower when you're in motion, but as long as we were within the service area and receiving a strong signal, we didn't notice any degradation in the quality of service.

At the border of a service area, however, the signal became unusable for anything but e-mail and Web browsing. That's because outside the EvDO coverage area, you use the slower, older 1xRTT network, whose speeds of about 70 kbps are barely faster than dial-up.

Within the stated coverage area, we rarely saw a signal drop, but we did experience odd stalls, even when the VZAccess application's signal-strength indicator displayed all four bars. A Verizon spokesperson noted that any number of momentary glitches could interfere with a signal: "Don't let that 'bar' commercial fool you. You can have four bars and still drop a call." We also saw strange color banding around GIF images, which rendered pictures unsightly. Verizon was unable to explain this phenomenon, but we speculate that it might be a relic of a compression scheme in the connection software.

So the service basically works, albeit unevenly. But there's a catch with both Verizon's BroadbandAccess and Cingular's BroadbandConnect, and it's a biggie that the rosy-sounding ads don't warn you about. Turns out, most of our tests were in violation of both companies' terms of service, which strictly mandate what you can and cannot do on their networks. Verizon explicitly allows only Web browsing, sending and receiving e-mail, and "access to a corporate intranet or specialized application" on its EvDO network. Cingular's terms of service are similarly worded; Sprint has yet to formulate contract language for its fledgling 3G service.

And that's all you can do. Relegated to the strictly prohibited list are:

  • Streaming or downloading music, movies, or games
  • Watching a Webcam feed or accessing any automatic data feed
  • Voice-over-IP phone calls
  • Peer-to-peer file transfers
  • Any automated machine-to-machine connection

Clearly, the ban on VoIP reflects Verizon's (and other carriers') concerns about the technology's threat to the voice-call business--after all, if you're paying for unlimited data service and can use Skype, why pay for a voice plan too? But depending on how the company interprets the terms, Verizon could prohibit just about any online activity, from visiting Windows Update to checking a real-time stock ticker. The question is, will it?

Evidently, neither Verizon nor Cingular strictly enforce the restrictions at this point: We broke all of the rules over the course of our testing and never heard a peep about it. Both companies said that the rules are in place only to dissuade people who would use the service for commercial purposes (to run a Web server, for example). Representatives assured us that most users wouldn't have to worry about getting kicked off the network for downloading a song or ten. "The legal there solely for abusers," Verizon spokesperson Brenda Raney told us.

Restrictions aside, we generally liked EvDO's performance. Though it can't replace wired broadband, it marries the convenience of instant-on access to a pretty fast Internet experience. After using the service exclusively for a few days, we found that we couldn't live without it.

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