Today Clearwire yanked the cloth off of its rumored Clear Spot portable WiMax-to-Wi-Fi hotspot, a shiny little battery-powered device that lets you bestow real 4G bandwidth upon anyone in Wi-Fi range.
The $140 thing fits in your pocket, runs for four hours on a lithium-ion battery, connects up to 8 laptops via Wi-Fi, and works like a charm when you're in a decent WiMax coverage area. (You still need to connect a WiMax modem, which costs $50 and requires a data plan.)
I tested it on the outskirts of Portland, at a Burgerville right off of I-5 in Vancouver, WA, essentially becoming a totally unwired, totally portable wireless hotspot for anybody with a computer or smartphone in the vicinity. Anyone can see the hotspot itself, as it has a standard Wi-Fi SSID, but once on, you have to enter a password, like you do in hotels or airports where the Wi-Fi network itself is technically public.
I can't make enough of the experience, and how much it could change businesses, sales forces or mobile bloggin' teams like Gizmodo. You don't even have to be plugged in, you can just all hop on and work as usual for up to four hours, more if you can find an electric socket. And with WiMax, you're not nearly as limited as you are with 3G—though there are some constraints, you at least have access to a network that, in certain coverage areas, bestows blistering broadband speeds similar those from today's wired cable modems.
One big constraint, of course, is that WiMax from Sprint/Clearwire is currently limited to Baltimore and Portland, OR, but is growing this year and next to many cities.
There is also an internal limit to how much WiMax bandwidth you can harness. Since the Clear Spot uses the same Motorola WiMax USB modem that Clearwire sells for its standard WiMax service, I could test how well the bandwidth was passed through.
• What I got when connecting an HP Pavilion dv4 Windows laptop to WiMax: Around 7Mbps
• What I got when connecting the same modem to the Clear Spot, then connected MacBook Pro via Wi-Fi: 3-4Mbps
That does certainly represent a bottleneck, and there's a reason for it: The wireless hotspot itself—which you might have seen under the brand Cradlepoint for a year or more—was designed for 3G, for whom 3Mbps downstream is a frickin' miracle. It has a gimped USB port that throttles bandwidth over 5Mbps.
Though that's a flaw, it's not a big deal when you consider most Clearwire WiMax plans will be sold with a 4Mbps cap.
Beyond the hardware bottleneck, my other complaints are relatively minor:
• There's no Ethernet port, so this can't fundamentally replace home broadband.
• In areas of low coverage, you get an error message saying the modem was not found, which is inaccurate.
• There's no good way to read WiMax signal strength on the device itself.
The good news for patient people is that, according to Scott Richardson, Clearwire's chief strategy officer, the company is exploring selling an unfettered WiMax account, so you'd get an experience closer to the one I got in my uncapped testing. Also, Scott tells me there will be another portable WiMax-to-Wi-Fi hotspot device available—probably in the fall—that's even smaller, and that wouldn't be restricted by the USB bottleneck.
This is one of those products that's totally niche but totally cool. Like, even if there are many people who are interested in getting WiMax, or better yet, a combo EVDO/WiMax modem from Sprint, I am not anybody would, at that point, also feel the need to share it with others. Maybe it's good for bringing your work-supplied modem home, or maybe it's a good way to split the cost of wireless modem service between a team of people who are always working together, on separate devices.
Regardless of all these scenarios, the fact is, it's a truly new experience, and hopefully something we see more of in the future. I would say this is one of hell of a reason for Big Cable to be shaking in its boots—that is, if only Comcast wasn't already part owner in Clearwire. [Clearwire Clear Spot release]