EV-DO: Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess

A word problem: suppose you are riding in a car going 70 mph and your destination is 300 miles away – how fast can you download a 1 megabyte file?

Chances are, you can’t, unless you subscribe to a mobile data service. It has long been possible to dribble sluggish bits of data by tethering your cell phone to a portable computer with a supported data subscription plan, but the solution is painfully slow and can be expensive. Enter cellular broadband services, also known as 3G (third generation) data services, which promise to offer broadband-like speeds to mobile users across wide areas. If you’re a 3G subscriber, the answer to our word problem could be as little as seven seconds.

In the U.S., the major 3G providers are Sprint Nextel Verizon Wireless (a joint venture of Verizon and Vodafone), and to a lesser extent, Cingular (“the new AT&T”). Both Sprint Mobile Broadband and Verizon BroadbandAccess use the technology called Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) and are actively expanding their network coverage and performance. Each claims to offer coverage within reach of over 200 million people across several hundred markets. In contrast, Cingular’s BroadbandConnect uses High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) technology and offers the potential to meet or exceed EV-DO performance — but, in comparison, coverage is available in only a fraction of markets.

Verizon is already upgrading many of its original EV-DO towers to support a newer, faster version called Rev A. To enjoy the increased bandwidth from Rev A, new or existing Verizon subscribers need a newer adapter such as the Novotel USB720 (which I used for testing) or the PCMCIA-compatible Sierra Aircard 595.

The Good
Whether you have access to Verizon’s original Rev 0 EV-DO network or the newer Rev A version, BroadbandAccess delivers on its promise of mobile connectivity.

Typical download speeds on the Rev A network average 600 Kbps to 1 Mbps with strong signal strength, although even better performance can be seen on lightly-loaded towers and through TCP/IP configuration tweaks. Rev 0 users typically see somewhat (but not dramatically) slower downstream throughput.

The more significant advantages of Rev A over Rev 0 come in upstream throughput and network latency. Whereas Rev 0 users typically experience upload speeds under 150 Kbps, Rev A users can enjoy a bump of several multiples, reaching 300-400 Kbps under good conditions. And like the download speeds, these numbers can be bumped as much as 50 percent higher with network configuration tweaks and, again, depending on conditions.

Latency is reduced considerably between Rev 0 and Rev A. On the Rev 0 network, average network latency is measured at approximately 200ms but can often spike as high as 400-500ms. In contrast, the Rev A network regularly delivers ping results below 100ms, although it too is subject to higher spikes.

The BroadbandAccess network has proven robust through a wide variety of signal strength conditions. The strongest signals measured run in the -50 to -60 dBm range and produce a full four bars in the software display. I extensively tested BroadbandAccess in a fringe coverage area – in fact, at least two-to-three miles outside the edge of Verizon’s official coverage area in my region (Ithaca, New York). Without the help of an external antenna, I managed only -100 to -105 dBm – nearly as faint a signal as you can get before the service drops out completely. In spite of the marginal signal, the service continued to deliver Rev 0 access with speeds averaging 300 Kbps down and 10-15 Kbps up – nowhere near its maximum capability, but better than no service at all.

With the help of an el-cheapo external directional antenna rated at 7dBm and careful placement in a high location, I improved the fringe signal to about -95dBm. Oscillating between one and two bars on the software display, download speeds average 500 Kbps with spikes as high as 700 Kbps, and upload speeds range widely from 15 Kbps to 64 Kbps.

While BroadbandAccess delivers only a fraction of its rated speeds in areas of weak signal strength, it does continue to deliver, which may be the most important quality of all for the highly mobile subscriber.

In spite of Verizon’s contractual Terms of Service (see “The Ugly” below), they do not seem to block most popular network services. Clients are assigned a publicly routable IP address.

Novatel USB 720

The USB720 Adapter
My evaluation was performed using Verizon’s new Rev A-compatible USB720 adapter ($129 with a two-year contract), made by Novatel Wireless. As its name implies, this EV-DO modem plugs into a USB port rather than a PCMCIA slot as most EV-DO adapters do.

In fact, the USB720 may require two USB ports on some systems. The adapter includes a USB Y-cable, designed to plug into two USB ports to provide extra power to the modem. Using the Y-cable offers the additional benefit of letting you place the adapter a couple of feet away from the computer, reducing interference and maximizing signal strength. On the other hand, for mobile use, the Y-cable can be awkward to tote around.

You can plug the bulky USB720 directly into a USB port without the cable, but some machines may not supply enough power from a single port. I found that a newer Toshiba portable powered the USB720 without difficulty, with or without the Y cable — but an older ThinkPad T21 could not deliver enough USB-based juice to drive the modem. What’s more, the old ThinkPad had only one USB port, making the Y cable moot — meaning that the USB720 could not be used at all with this older machine.

The USB720 includes a small flip-up antenna. When open, it exposes an external antenna jack, which can be especially useful in fringe signal areas.

The Software
Whether you use BroadbandAccess with Windows or a Mac, Verizon provides a utility called VZAccess Manager to manage your connection. Most people will use the software for nothing more than connecting and disconnecting from the service. You can optionally configure the software to create a VPN connection automatically on startup.

Optionally, VZAccess Manager can also manage your Wi-Fi adapter, the idea being to centralize your connectivity. Fortunately, the software doesn’t force you to abandon your existing Wi-Fi management utility if you prefer.

The VZAccess Manager software keeps track of usage statistics, logging each connection to the Verizon network, including session length and bytes transferred. You can unofficially refer to these logs to note your monthly usage (more on that later). Unfortunately, your usage data will be incomplete if you need to reinstall the software or move your EV-DO adapter between two or more machines.

The Bad
Although Verizon BroadbandAccess delivers mobile connectivity, the service is not without its quirks.

Compared to terrestrial broadband, network performance can be erratic. The cell towers that provide the EV-DO signals vary in network capacity and user load. As a result, speeds can bounce around dramatically over a short period of time. As a general rule, and not surprisingly, speeds are higher and more consistent in lightly populated areas compared to a dense city.

In some locations, where the newer Rev A service is available, the modem would sometimes take several minutes or more to become aware of the Rev A service. It is possible this delay occurs when two or more towers are in sight but Rev A is incompletely deployed. The adapter and/or software may need upgraded algorithms for choosing the best available service level.

Along those lines, in an area of fringe signal, the modem will downgrade to Verizon’s slower 1xRTT NationalAccess plan, with maximum speeds of 144 Kbps symmetrical. While good in theory – you can at least stay online even in areas with weak signals or without EV-DO coverage – the modem and/or software seems too conservative about downgrading the service level.

You can access a publicly undocumented diagnostic mode of the VZAccess Manager software by pressing CTRL-D and entering the password diagvzw. In diagnostic mode, you can enter a settings window, which offers the choice to lock the modem exclusively in EV-DO (HDR) mode. When doing so, the modem proves capable of maintaining an EV-DO connection with low signal strength when otherwise it would have downgraded itself to NationalAccess.

The Ugly
In spite of the potential for overcrowded towers and the need to tweak the EV-DO modem’s algorithm for choosing the best available service level, by and large Verizon’s engineers have put together an impressively stable and robust 3G network.

Unfortunately, policy and contract aspects of the BroadbandAccess service have been marred by — we imagine — lawyers and/or executives living in an alternate reality.

For some time, Verizon has marketed BroadbandAccess with a single service level, unfortunately called “unlimited” — unfortunately, because “unlimited,” in the verbiage of far too many ISP contract lawyers, has been redefined as meaning “with limits.”

In its early months of availability, some subscribers to BroadbandAccess reported that Verizon had terminated their accounts for excessive usage, despite printing no specific usage cap in their Terms of Service.

More recently, Verizon appears to be gradually backing away from the “unlimited” marketing term and has specified a 5GB monthly usage cap in the subscriber contract. Verizon’s latest terms of service have couched the 5GB cap in a contortionist feat of legalistic logic:

… may ONLY be used with wireless devices for the following purposes: (i) Internet browsing; (ii) email; and (iii) intranet access (including access to corporate intranets, email, and individual productivity applications like customer relationship management, sales force, and field service automation). The Data Plans and Features MAY NOT be used for any other purpose. Examples of prohibited uses include, without limitation, the following: (i) continuous uploading, downloading or streaming of audio or video programming or games; (ii) server devices or host computer applications, including, but not limited to, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, automated machine–to–machine connections or peer–to–peer (P2P) file sharing; or (iii) as a substitute or backup for private lines or dedicated data connections. This means, by way of example only, that checking email, surfing the Internet, downloading legally acquired songs, and/or visiting corporate intranets is permitted, but downloading movies using P2P file sharing services and/or redirecting television signals for viewing on laptops is prohibited. A person engaged in prohibited uses, continuously for one hour, could typically use 100 to 200 MBs, or, if engaged in prohibited uses for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, could use more than 5 GBs in a month. [current as of April 12, 2007]

To which we are tempted to respond, “The Aristocrats!” Lest we overlook this fine print, taken from Verizon’s Web site:

If more than 5 GB/line/month are used, we presume use is for non-permitted uses and reserve the right to terminate service immediately.

Any ISP will agree that in today’s environment, a small fraction of users consume a large fraction of bandwidth. Due to the nature of cellular technology, Verizon is understandably bottlenecked and BroadbandAccess is not intended to replace terrestrial broadband. Verizon is certainly justified in implementing a usage quota of whatever level they deem necessary to ensure expected network performance for subscribers.

Less justifiable is Verizon’s mealy-mouthed way of conflating a usage cap with presumptions about network use, which, ultimately, defy logic. Worse, they have stacked the cards in their favor, because subscribers are offered no official accounting of their data consumption. Other than the data compiled by the VZAccess Manager software, which is subject to error for myriad reasons, customers have no record with which to challenge Verizon’s “immediate” termination, and Verizon has accepted no accountability in the matter.

Buying In
Verizon obviously is not alone in spinning a sticky Web around its customers. To the extent that Verizon says its service delivers for the market they want to capture, they are absolutely right.

Most potential subscribers to BroadbandAccess won’t run afoul of Verizon’s twisted terms and will enjoy the very real benefit of broadband mobility. Surfing the Web, managing e-mail, or accessing your corporate VPN at 70 mph – from the passenger’s seat, of course – is no small feat, Henry David Thoreau be darned. With BroadbandAccess you literally can be productive from almost any populated area. And those excessive daily charges for Wi-Fi Internet access at airports and “executive” hotels? Bah. For the seriously mobile business traveler, BroadbandAccess could easily pay for itself.

In addition to the cost of the EV-DO adapter, BroadbandAccess service costs $59.99 monthly with a two-year contract and a qualifying voice plan, or $79.99 monthly otherwise.

Adapted from wi-fiplanet.com.

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