Commentary

Mobile At The Speed of Geek -- Or, Pulling 4Gs Without Fainting

Clearly I am way too invested in what I do. Now I find myself apologizing for poor connectivity, as If I am responsible for everyone's network. I was showing my father a cool new Video Time Machine app for the iPad over the weekend, and the WiFi strength of the router a floor above was not able to keep up. "Sorry," I said by reflex, even though it was his router. Then I went on to explain how the biggest choke point left in true mobility seems to be the last 20 feet -- to the inscrutable home WiFi network. 

Here back in my own Honeymoon Hotel, the wireless situation can go to Def Con 1 in short order. It is bad enough my ordinarily lovely bride's Dell laptop has issues with my steroid-fueled dual-band WiFi-N router ("Can't find connection...CANT find connection...CANT FIND CONNECTION --- HUNNNNEEEEE!"_ When they pronounce the Ns as if they are crushing your sorry-ass bones on their hard palate, you know to pay attention. 

But it is the mobile phone switchover that has got me in marital purgatory only six weeks in. Setting up house after the wedding we reconfigured (okay, I reconfigured) the communications architecture so that our mobile lines were now our sole personal phones and a digital voice line was the office number.  "I can't even hear my poor 79-year-old mother!" my wife screams in frustration about the iPhone reception to which I have consigned her. "That is because your 79-year-old mother can hear better than you do since she didn't spend her 20s at Grateful Dead concerts," I say... to myself (because I may be a newlywed, but I am not brain dead). 

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With so many devices, from set-top boxes to laptops, Internet radios to smart phones and tablets all relying on the vagaries of an 802.11N signal, the entire entertainment and information matrix here rests on a pretty shaky backbone. Lost signals, inexplicably degraded connections, grabbing the wrong router band, etc. all make the wireless home theater multi-plex less than plug and play. I have been tinkering with home networks long before standards and interoperability were in place, and even I am left puzzled. I can't imagine how many families handle this stuff.

But I got a taste this week of wireless at breakneck speed with relatively seamless setup and connectivity. After hearing about the blazing performance of Verizon's LTE 4G network I finally got my hands on a MiFi unit running on the next-gen network. There are a few things that impressed me about the way Big V's 4G connectivity worked. First. It was easy. I turned on the MiFi hotspot, a single light told me whether it had found a 4G or 3G signal, and I was able to connect easily and quickly to the device via WiFi quickly. The path to connection was seamless, and since I could keep the hot spot with me I wasn't plagued by the dropped connections. There were a few issues involving fall back to 3G, which is not great on Verizon, but generally it performed well.  

The truly amazing part of this was the raw speed. On my iPad and iPhone, which typically will get 2.5Mbps downloads and 1.5Mbps upload speed on the AT&T 3G network around my house, the LTE network consistently hit 7Mbps down and even faster up (up to 8 Mbps). Better still, in most cases the flow was strong and consistent.  

So I couldn't resist. I used the Apple TV box to tap into the 4G network over the hotspot. Not only did the Apple TV run high-res video quickly and glitch-free on a 60-inch TV screen off of the LTE network, it was actually more responsive and reliable in its connections that the Apple TV running on my 5.6 GHz band of the WiFi-N. Raw throughput is likely still higher on my WiFi network but the feel of grabbing information from the servers and responding to new commands was actually snappier.   

To be sure, I imagine I am among only a handful of people taxing LTE in my area, so how the network holds up as it gets cluttered in unclear. It certainly had no trouble streaming video to Apple TV and through Netflix to my iPad off of the same hot spot. Does speed like this change mobile behaviors? Perhaps incrementally. I have had pretty good streaming media experiences on 3G from AT&T over the iPhone, but considerably less consistent data performance over Verizon's 3G in my area over the years. There have been times in my own house when I kicked over to AT&T 3G simply because the WiFi-N signal from my router got patchy. Knowing the data channel will respond reliably as needed is an impetus for use, which widens the range of applications you will rely on.  

As consumer come to expect speed, and have the experience of semi-broadband like 3G, then I have to imagine there are diminishing returns as we ramp up speed and reliability even further.  The jump to 3G had a fundamental effect on my mobile behaviors. Is that same kind of leap possible when you see the speed ramp up even this much? But as my test with Apple TV running on an LTE network suggests, super fast wireless broadband can put significant pressure on incumbent MSOs.  

In my house, the pressure may be coming sooner rather than later.  

"CANT FIND CONNECTION....DARRRLINGGG!" Agh! She just strangled me with the hard G between clenched teeth. Back to the router settings.

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