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9/30/2008
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I'm One Of Sprint's First WiMax Customers

I became one the first customers in the United States to have real WiMax service today. So far (after a few easy-to-fix bumps), so good.

I became one the first customers in the United States to have real WiMax service today. So far (after a few easy-to-fix bumps), so good.I live in Baltimore, which yesterday began its role as test bed for Sprint's new WiMax service, known as Xohm. Sprint is offering both home and mobile WiMax services, and I've signed up for both in a combo deal. But you have to buy the equipment first. Unlike many cable and DSL providers, there's no modem or wireless card rental. That set me back $59 for the Samsung SWC-E100 Xohm ExpressCard and $79 for the funky-looking ZyXEL MAX-206M2 modem.

One interesting bit to me is that I can't just walk into my local Sprint store and buy the equipment (though I can buy it online). Instead, Sprint has partnered with local computer retailers like Computer Harbor, a little computer repair shop a few blocks away from my row house and home office here in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. As the seventh customer since yesterday, I bought the second-to-last modem they had in stock. According to the sales guy, that's brisk business for Computer Harbor.

Setup should be simple (just place the modem next to a window, plug things in, and get going), but I had a few problems at first. When you first plug in the modem, it upgrades its firmware before you can get connected to the Internet, and that takes up to 15 minutes, according to the Computer Harbor sales guy. I guess I didn't wait long enough for that, and my first attempt at installing the CD that comes with the hardware and then connecting to the service didn't get me all the way to the public Internet.

The second attempt, a few minutes later, went smoother. After installing some software, new users are automatically taken to Sprint's Xohm Web site to select a service level and sign up. There are four options: home service, mobile service, a combination of those two, and some pay-by-the-day service. I signed up for the combo service, which will set me back $50 per month with a promise of no hidden fees, a price Sprint says will be good for life since I'm an early customer. Otherwise, it will eventually cost $65 per month for the combo deal. Home service costs $25 for the first six months and $35 thereafter, while mobile service starts at $30 and will increase to $45 in six months.

As for price comparisons, Comcast locally charges $42.95 per month for 6-Mbps service, plus a $3 per month modem rental fee and probably other stuff packed into other fees on my cable bill that I never pay attention to. PowerBoost, the bursting service, is extra. The cheapest installation option is $39.90 for personal installation. Verizon Power DSL service, 3-Mbps download and 768-Kbps upload, costs $29.99 per month plus additional "charges, taxes" and a $19.99 shipping and activation charge. So Xohm seems to come out at "fair" on my price scale, all other things equal.

After setting up the service, I went to set up the wireless router. It seems my wireless router and the ZyXEL modem share default IP addresses, which I didn't know, and which interfered with one another. I was wondering what was going on until I called customer service. There was no wait to talk to a human when I called customer service, and the guy who I spoke with actually seemed to have some networking expertise, rather than being in some random call center somewhere looking at a troubleshooting file. After changing the IP address on my router, I was up and running.

So far, service has been pretty good using the home modem. I was worried about quality of service, since my home office and modem are at the back of my two-story house, which has thick brick walls and is shorter than some of the surrounding three-story houses and outside of the line of sight of some of the taller buildings in the city where the WiMax antennas are likely installed, but I've really seen no problems as of yet.

The Web seems a hair or two slower than with my other Internet service from Comcast. VoIP calls work fine, and my voice apparently comes through clearly on the other end, according to the few people I've spoken with since setting this up. Video streams well.

According to Speedtest.net, I'm getting 3.4-Mbps download, and 1.2-Mbps upload with an average ping time around 110 ms. That compares with a not-to-be believed (in my mind) 31.1-Mbps download I'm somehow getting from Comcast and a 2.6-Mbps upload, which might be as a result of my upgraded service, which includes some speed-bursting capabilities.

I'll be testing the PC card connection sometime tomorrow after work, riding around with my wife while a movie streams to my laptop. That's one of the real tests, in my mind.

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