Thursday, April 17, 2008

Brief Adventures in 3G

During my recent hospital visit I found myself desperately in need of internet connectivity. The hospital provided wireless internet in the main "food court" area, which was a significant hike (the hospital covers multiple city blocks joined by 2nd to 6th floor crosswalks) from my wife's bedside, so I settled for daily email checks along with my morning coffee.

But if hospital is one thing, it's boring, and my craving for internet connectivity eventually got the better of me.

My wife and I have been planning to get 2nd Generation iPhones as soon as our Verizon account expires and assuming Apple releases a second generation iPhone we like (preferably with 3G networking and SDHC support or a lot more internal storage) but in the meantime, what to do?

It turns out that Verizon offers several wireless broadband solutions via their 3G network. The options are: PC card modem, USB modem, or 3G cellphone. Since I didn't want to buy a modem or get locked into a plan, I decided to try the 3G cellphone option.

Now, I've used the iPhone to browse the web via its EDGE network both in stores (after getting an Apple person to show me how to turn off WiFi) and using friends' iPhones in random places, notably in the stadium with 110,000 people at a Crimson Tide home game (where I would say that EDGE was uselessly slow).

Well, I've tried Verizon 3G both through my Motorola RAZR v3 (c? m?) with varying levels of reception (we get full bars in our house) and the best results I could squeeze out of this "3G" "wireless broadband" network was roughly comparable to what we got out of EDGE at anything other than a Crimson Tide game. That is, for about two minutes, I was able to slowly view simple web pages. Aside from that, whether using my cellphone as a modem via USB or Bluetooth, or browsing directly on the phone, I got unbearably slow throughput. At the end of all my browsing attempts, the running totals on the bandwidth meter were all still zeroes.

They tell you "5GB is effectively unlimited". I was concerned by the 5GB limit (since they charge you a ridiculous $0.50/MB over the limit) but I don't think even a dedicated masochist with a point to prove could bear to suck 5GB per month down this particular straw even if it were theoretically possible. From my experience having managed to upload and download a total of less than 512kB (I'm assuming more would have rounded to something beyond "0") I'd need to completely restart my connection and my phone (the latter a painfully slow process fraught with reminders that I'm a Verizon customer who will not be extending my service plan) about ten times per MB downloaded, which means to download 5GB I'd need to restart my phone 50,000 times. By back of envelope that's about ten solid days of watching my phone's shutdown and startup animations.

(I should add that separate tests at home where we get "more bars" produced scarcely better results.)

I'm sure that, in theory, 3G is pretty wonderful. In practice, however, the speed of Verizon's 3G network in downtown Birmingham is atrocious (or is it the Motorola v3 (c? m?)), and it would be faster to walk to a WiFi hotspot to download a few web pages. Assuming you have WiFi support, which the iPhone does and most of its rivals do not.

Oh and when I cancelled the 3G data "feature" on my phone account, Verizon charged me pro-rata for the fraction of a month I kept it, even though I stopped using it after the second day and clearly got nothing out of it. Thanks Verizon.