Wimax Woes in High-Rise Chicago

When CLEAR Wimax launched its speedy 4G wireless broadband service in November, I was so happy I immediately signed up and then proceeded to beat my finicky AT&T DSL modem to death with a hammer. The first month of zippy speeds and streaming movies was fun while it lasted.

By December, though, I noticed my signal strength–and access speed–steadily degrading. Before Thanksgiving, four shiny green modem lights and six megabytes of speed had me glued to full-screen Netflix Instant Play. Today if I’m lucky, two come-and-go modem lights bring me a 4G wireless connection so slow, I have to wait for YouTube to cache low-definition, 90-second videos.

It isn’t as if my service has gotten any cheaper. Annoyed to be paying DSL prices for evaporating service, this month I asked CLEAR to send a tech support representative to my apartment–on the 38th floor of Marina City in downtown Chicago, directly across the Chicago River from the Loop.

When he arrived, I explained that every night, I watch my modem reset thanks to regular midnight maintenance on CLEAR’s part. And about once a week, after the modem finishes resetting, my connection speed is lower than before. I was getting afraid that one night my service simply wouldn’t come back.

As it turns out, that might come to pass. The tech told me service was speedy at street level in downtown Chicago. It’s these pesky high-rises that seem to be the problem. You know, the ones that clump a few hundred strong throughout downtown Chicago and stretch for 26 miles up and down the lakefront? If only Chicago were a flatter city–lower to the ground, as it were–my speed would be phenomenal.

Actually, it’s not the high-rises, alone, causing the problem. As the tech explained, it’s the fact that “too many people are signing up for service too quickly” for CLEAR to maintain an adequately strong 4G signal. So as growing popularity degrades the signal, the point-of-no-return for a useful signal gets closer and closer to the ground.

Of course I had great service in November, the tech told me. CLEAR didn’t have many customers yet, at that point. Worst of all, CLEAR has no plans to add towers or boost the signal. My choices are to cancel my service without penalty or to wait it out until demand and capacity balance out.

Or move to a shorter building.

Obviously no older than 25, I was sure the tech had no idea what he was really telling me. That is, that CLEAR’s rollout plan for Chicago–the city that invented the skyscraper, as evidenced by the fact that we actually built a couple, two, three of them here (look closely next time you’re outside in thew Windy City and if you’re lucky you might see one)–is inadequate for a significant segment of this market.

That means if you’re a business owner, a renter, or a condo dweller in one of those high-rises that CLEAR finds it hard to believe exist in Chicago who’s been considering Wimax broadband service, right now you may be out of luck. Too bad. When it worked in my apartment, Wimax was just as fast as my old DSL modem. It attains pretty good speeds, too, when I plug in my USB modem and take my laptop to a ground floor coffee shop, and worked great the whole way on a recent trip out to Naperville on Metra.

It would be nice if CLEAR actually noticed the high-rise Wimax problem in Chicago. When I complained about the issue recently on WindyCitizen, a CLEAR representative with what I can only imagine to be questionable reading comprehension responded by sending me a personal email. It was an offer for discounts if I get my friends and family to sign up for the service.

I wish CLEAR the best of luck should they ever decide to roll Wimax out in New York City. I hear they have high-rises there, too. Someone should probably let them know.

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