Cingular Wireless’s new broadband service to compete with EV-DO in a handful of major markets

February 3, 2006

4 Min Read
Review: Cingular Broadband Connect

Move over, Sprint. Step aside, Verizon. EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized), a 3G data standard for CDMA2000 networks, is no longer the only game in town for getting 3G service. Cingular Wireless has introduced its BroadbandConnect service, providing competition to EV-DO in a handful of major markets.

BroadbandConnect is based on HSDPA, or High Speed Downlink Packet Access, a 3G data capability for UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) networks, part of the GSM family of cellular technologies. Broadband Connect, which is currently available in 16 markets, marks a significant performance upgrade from EDGE (Enhanced data Rates for GSM Evolution), Cingular's previous high-speed data service. In my tests, I found BroadbandConnect to be 3 to 5 times faster than EDGE.

I used two cards on my IBM T30 laptop, Sierra Wireless' AirCard 860 3G and Novatel's Merlin U730 Wireless PC Card. But regardless of which card you use, management of your connection to the BroadbandConnect network is done through the Cingular Communication Manager (CCM) software. In addition to connecting to the HSDPA network, the CCM will sniff out Wi-Fi networks, giving you the option to connect to whichever network (Wi-Fi or 3G) offers the better service. A graph in the CCM software and a Cingular icon in the task tray shows your connection strength--a brighter orange logo indicates a stronger connection. A Windows XP network status icon also shows connection status.

Real Numbers
Those familiar with Wi-Fi know that the "actual mileage may vary" rule applies for real-world performance. Hypothetical HSDPA rates are 1.8 Mbps or 3.6 Mbps peak (this varies by device), with an average of 400 Kbps to 700 Kbps throughput in real-world conditions. In my tests, downstream throughput ranged from about 300 Kbps on the low end to 900 Kbps on the high end. Upload performance, which ranged from 43 Kbps to about 100 Kbps, was disappointing, particularly after working with EV-DO (about 110 Kbps to 130 Kbps for uploads). There are enhancements planned for UMTS/HSDPA networks that should increase upload speeds.

Web page load times for media-rich Web sites were similar to my experiences with EV-DO, though even with the high throughput levels pages loaded slower than on my DSL line. All told, loaded in about 18 seconds (9 seconds on DSL), loaded in 17 seconds (10 seconds on DSL), and loaded in 12 seconds (7 seconds on DSL).

Roaming performance for BroadbandConnect was acceptable. On a trip from Dulles to Arlington, Va., (a distance of 23.5 miles), I listened to a 192-Kbps live MP3 stream. There were a few minor drops in the connection, no doubt as I was handed off to other cell sites. Otherwise, performance was good with no degradation in the overall stream quality.

High latency is a problem for BroadbandConnect. Ping times to various sites ranged from 115 ms to almost 300 ms. That and relatively slow upstream performance make the service less than ideal for gaming and voice over IP activities. But HSDPA latency is significantly better than EDGE and other 2G data services, and it's comparable to 3G services like EV-DO. The UMTS road map shows future enhancements that will bring latency down even further.

Generally I found the connection to be solid, though I was occasionally unable to get a connection to BroadbandConnect inside some buildings. When the service wasn't available, the connection fell back to the slower EDGE service, where off-peak downstream performance ranged from 90 Kbps to 175 Kbps.

Cingular's new BroadbandConnect marks a real competitive offering against the current 3G services from Verizon and Sprint. Once BroadbandConnect moves beyond the initial markets of Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Washington, D.C., it will be competitive at a business level as well. In addition, once HSDPA handsets appear later this year, you'll be able to have simultaneous voice and data operation, which EV-DO cannot support. And BroadbandConnect has the potential to be faster in the long run: Last December Nortel and Option demonstrated a card capable of speeds of 3.6 Mbps, a speed achieved over the air, not in a lab, albeit in the most ideal testing environment. Nonetheless, the promise is there.

Monthly data plans start at $19.99; $59.99 unlimited Data Connect plan includes option to buy Sierra or Novatel card for $99.99.

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