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From Wimax Woes–to Wimax Goes–in High-Rise Chicago

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If you want to piss off  blogger, take away their ability to blog. And lately, I have been one very definitely pissed off Jewish blogger. So, after three-and-a-half years, I’m dumping Clear Wimax. Four years ago, I was one of the early adopters of Clear Wimax service in Chicago. The wireless high-speed Internet service replaced AT&T DSL service that at the time was so spotty and slow, after making the switch, I destroyed my AT&T DSL modem with a hammer–on video, yet.

I’ve come to the conclusion you just can’t win with high-speed Internet service in a Chicago high-rise. During the eight years I’ve lived in Chicago high-rises, I’ve suffered through crappy third-party DSL, promising then disastrous AT&T DSL service, and now for the second time, on-again/off-again Clear Wimax service.

A bit of backstory, I almost never had Internet issues living closer to the ground, in Chicago or back in New York City. That’s a bit of a lie, actually, because I was also an early adopter of (the former Bell Atlantic) DSL service back in Brooklyn in the 1990s. The early service went out so often, I complained to state regulators, got two months of free service, and then promptly switched to cable-modem service from Time Warner Cable. At the time, I felt like you needed a seatbelt for the speed.

Arriving in low-rise Chicago in 2003, I immediately signed up for Comcast cable and cable-modem service. New verse, same as the first–for my first couple of years in Chicago, I continued to enjoy ridiculously fast and reliable Internet. (You will note this is not a blog post about cost, as no one would argue, least of all me, that high-speed Internet from your cable provider is cheap.)

And then I moved to the 38th floor of the east tower of Marina City. I wish I knew why Chicago high-rises seem to live in deathly fear of allowing themselves to be wired for modern cable service. In truth I know–because Windy City condo boards in older buildings tend to be cheap, or too poor, to want to pay for the rewiring projects that their often 1960s-era TV wiring would require.

So whether you live in a downtown Chicago residential tower, or somewhere in Chicago’s 20-mile lakefront mountain range of residential condos, your choices tend to be DirecTV (at best) and some slower-than-average, often reseller-supplied version of DSL. (What, you say? Your building has Verizon FIOS, or Comcast service? You are obviously the elite of Chicago’s lakefront liberals living in a top-tier building. Would you mind if Ryan and I come stay in your guest room? I’ll cook, he’ll clean, and we’ll all enjoy Roku service that never stutters. Trust me, my chopped liver is amazing.)

We had MDU at Marina City for DSL–as impossible to place the initials of the company as it often was to get hold of technical support when the Internet went out every other weekend in the mid-2000s. The only real other option was AT&T DSL service. Eventually, after a several day-long outage, I bit the bullet and returned to life as a DSL customer. Things were fine–for a while. Of course, that’s how they reel you in. But after the first couple of months, slow service and frequent outages became the norm once again. I sucked it up for a couple of years, flipped through the channels of my DirecTV while I was waiting for pages to load–and cursed every condo board member I encountered under my breath–because there just want any other choice.

And then Clear arrived on the scene. Back in 2009, the company was positioning itself as the over-the-air savior for a nation of wired high-speed Internet customers. The moment they got to downtown Chicago, out (so spectacularly) went the AT&T DSL modem, and on—next to my window–went the five steady lights of my shiny, new Clear Wimax modem.

Anyone who has ever been a Clear customer anywhere in America knows that the story could not possibly stop there with a happy ending.

It took only a few weeks for those five lights to become four, then three, then two, sometimes none, and that “fat pipeline” to become anemic-to-nonexistent, depending on the day. Hours spent moving the modem around the apartment did some good, but never for long. When Ryan and I moved to Edgewater last year, we were happy to learn that Clear had a better signal at our new home than at our old one–because of course, and yet again, the only television/broadband options at our new building, just like at Marina City, were DirecTV and AT&T.

We should have eaten crow and called AT&T sooner. But now, after 13 months of yet again on-again/off-again Clear service (ultimately, that second Clear honeymoon period didn’t last any longer than the first), we’re throwing in the towel. Especially after the past six months, when our Clear Wimax service declined almost to dial-up speeds (so much for using our Rokus!), and after the past two weeks when our service, depending on the hour, has sometimes disappeared entirely.

So after saying goodbye to my former AT&T DSL modem with a hammer four years ago, a new AT&T DSL modem arrives on Wednesday, and along with Ryan I’ll be back to my most-hated form of broadband Internet. Well, second most-hated after Clear, clearly.

It shouldn’t have been this way. Clear arrived on the scene with a lot of hubris and plans to be the country’s first and best 4G wireless broadband provider. Unfortunately, at the same time everyone else (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) was developing second-generation LTE versions of 4G (LMGTFY). And as I groused shortly after signing up for Clear the first time, even when it was new, Clear–at least in Chicago (and for a time I had a Clear USB stick that allowed me to test the service out across the city and suburbs)–never lived up to its claims of unlimited, high-speed, video-quality Internet with any reliability.

I kept it so long because it was cheap and unlimited. Of course, you get what you pay for, and after all this time I’m pretty much left feeling I paid for three-and-a-half years of throttling as Clear struggled to provide the service it promised. Now that Sprint is upgrading its network, and finally turning off the old Nextel bandwidth, Clear is basically screwed. They originally co-located their Wimax transmitters in existing Sprint antenna locations (again, LMGTFY). As Sprint turns on its own LTE service and upgrades their old antenna locations, some Clear Wimax transmitters are being decommissioned entirely.

That appears to be what happened here in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood and in neighboring Rogers Park, where our area and several others this spring have become brand-new Clear dead zones–our former Clear towers simply disappearing entirely from Clear’s service map. Really? Really.

And really, the schmuck is me. I am the schmuck. I work from home and need reliable connectivity. That’s why Ryan and I carry unlimited data and voice on our phones. I should have made this decision much sooner.

So welcome back begrudgingly, AT&T DSL. Please do a better job this time.

And goodbye, Clear Wimax. You never, not once, lived up to your promises. You had more than your fair share of second chances, and still did your best to do me wrong. If you were an ex, I’d be cutting the crotches out of our pants and throwing your stuff off the balcony by now. I’ll be thrilled to see your lying lights blink off forever. Wednesday can’t get here soon enough. I wish you had a car for me to beat its headlights in and a momma to call and tell how you done me wrong. Now beat it.

Don’t make me get the hammer.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


2 replies

  1. I can relate. I’m still stuck with Clear down her in the corn cobs. Service can be great, or it can be awful – usually the latter. DSL isn’t an option because, as I discovered the last time I had DSL, there’s a short somewhere in the wiring between AT&T’s area of responsibility and my apartment – and no one wants to take responsibility.

    I’m ready to move, though, so I hope I won’t have to tolerate Clear much longer. Wonder if the Aqua building has better broadband…

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