Sprint U301 3G/4G USB Modem (Franklin Wireless): Good Speeds, Lots of Potential
At a Glance
Sprint U301 USB Modem
The dual-mode U301 can deliver fast speeds where a 4G signal is available, but it has trouble automatically switching from 3G to 4G.
I need to be able to create and send content from wherever I am. For that, I need my laptop, and it has to be connected to the Internet at high speed. Connecting over Wi-Fi usually does the job--but when I’m on the road, locating a Wi-Fi connection can be a challenge. I find myself using (or wishing I could use) cellular data service. Franklin’s U301 USB modem allows you to do that, and adds the possibility of connecting to faster 4G networks where they are available.
Though the unit has a list price of $300 (as of May 25, 2010), Sprint's current online rebates make the item free if the purchase is tied to a two-year contract with unlimited 4G data ($60 per month).
In general, 3G cellular service is around half as fast as the DSL-like speeds (downloads at about 1 megabit per second) of a typical Starbucks Wi-Fi connection. But 4G service (in our experience) can pump out download speeds in the 2 to 4 mbps range, with bursts of up to 8 mbps.
During the 2010 wireless performance tests that my firm, Novarum, conducted with PCWorld, I tested the speed of the Clearwire/Sprint 4G network from numerous locations in Baltimore, Portland, and Seattle, using the U301 3G/4G modem to connect a Windows 7 laptop.
In those tests I found the U301’s setup routine easy and straightforward. The modem comes with a CD, which takes you through a Windows wizard to install a driver and a connection utility. You use the connection utility to set communications parameters (“3G only,” “4G only,” or “best available”) and to initiate the connection process. I encountered only one hitch: The Windows 7 machine already had a Sprint 3G modem installed, and the new 4G modem software I was trying to install conflicted with it. After I completely removed the old modem software, I was able to install the new U301 software. If Sprint had maintained some compatibility between generations of USB modem software, this problem could have been avoided.
Trouble on the Upshift
Once installed, the modem software was clean and simple to use. I set the unit to switch automatically between 4G and 3G service, with a preference for 4G (the default setting); this meant that the U301 was supposed to use 4G service when available, and fall back to 3G service only when it could detect no 4G. When the modem could detect neither 4G nor 3G service, it was to attempt to find 2G (1xRTT) CDMA service--in 60 tests, however, this happened only once.
During my tests, when the 4G signal faded, the U301 downshifted smoothly to 3G mode. I found, though, that the U301 was reluctant to move from 3G back up to 4G when the faster network again became available. In fact, I usually found it easier to pop the modem from the USB slot and reinsert it; upon reinsertion the modem would automatically launch the utility, searching for new 4G service.
In Sprint 4G cities the U301 was in 4G mode an impressive 80 percent of the time, and during the other 20 percent it always found 3G coverage (with one exception). As Clearwire continues enhancing its 4G network, that 80 percent coverage will likely improve in the same way that 3G coverage has grown to replace 2G coverage.
Faster, but Not Quite Up to Expectations
When the U301 tapped in to the 4G signal, it registered some very fast speeds.
For the Novarum and PCWorld tests of 2010, I traveled with an assortment of USB modems from all the major carriers--3G USB modems from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. I put each device through the same tests (in the same locations at roughly the same times), so that I could make comparisons between the performance of the 3G gear and that of the Sprint U301 4G modem.
Sprint’s 4G service (on the Clearwire network) showed average download speeds of about 2.4 mbps. The 3G networks of Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon averaged 0.8 mbps (or 800 kilobits per second), while AT&T’s 3G service had average download speeds of 1.4 mbps.
Sprint promises 4G download speeds of between 3 and 6 mbps, with peak speeds of up to 10 mbps. Our Novarum laptop-based tests (using the U301 modem) in January 2010 measured something less than that: download speeds averaging 2 to 4 mbps, with occasional higher bursts up to 8 mbps. Only 19 percent of our tests yielded downstream throughput higher than 4 mbps, and the median speed (half our locations were faster, half were slower) download speed was about 1.5 mbps--the same median speed as the AT&T 3G service.
In daily use, I would expect average download speeds in the 2 to 3 mbps range with a median speed of less than 2 mbps. These lower-than-expected speeds are the result of the immaturity of 4G networks, not the fault of the U301 modem. As Clearwire installs more 4G cell sites to its network, performance is likely to improve.
Sprint is the current leader in deploying 4G in the United States, having rolled out WiMax-based 4G (via its partner ClearwWire) in about 28 U.S. cities with the promise of 80 to 90 by the end of 2010. If Sprint begins delivering on the promised typical downstream performance of between 4 and 6 mbps with bursts as high as 10 mbps, the service will be five times the speed of typical Starbucks Wi-Fi, will exceed wired DSL, and will rival most cable modem Internet services.