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New Tampa Bay Internet provider Clear offers WiMax on-the-go

Just how fast is Tampa Bay's next generation of mobile broadband?

Now there's a service that offers wireless Internet packaged like household Web access. No need for cable or telephone lines — instead, it's WiMax, what one Consumer Reports editor calls "WiFi on steroids."

It's just one taste of a new world as mobile operators invest in an alphabet-soup of network technology. Call it next-gen or 4G or just "faster than 3G." Grasp the fine distinctions between HSPA+ or LTE or WiMax. Or don't. Either way you'll notice new phones, devices and Web options, some with simple unlimited data plans, others with pricey data limits.

Or, like new player in town Clear, with a device the size of a small book that acts like a household cable modem, but that needs no wired connection. You can take it with you anywhere there's Clear 4G coverage.

Clear launched its services in the Tampa Bay area this month. What distinguishes its pitch are devices and plans designed to replace traditional Internet service, rather than merely supplement it on the road.

Clear opened stores in several bay area malls, and also offers services online at Clear.com and through Best Buy, RadioShack and 80 other dealers, said Joe Zeccola, general manager of the Tampa Bay market. Its network covers most of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and New Port Richey in Pasco.

While there are speedier wired Internet options in the bay area, most prominently Verizon's FiOS, Clear markets its portability.

Clear says it delivers average download speeds of 3 to 6 megabits per second, with bursts at 10 mbps. That beats many 3G networks, and it's on par with standard wired broadband offerings — though it's not close to premium-priced wired speeds. But it can be less expensive, especially as a portable option. Mobile data plans often have caps on how much you can download; Clear doesn't.

Standard access starts at $45 a month. If you purchase equipment, no contract is required, or devices can be leased for a small monthly fee. If you're more interested in taking the Web with you, replace the book-sized device with a mouse-sized portable version — your own Internet hotspot that serves up the Web for multiple devices. Want to use both, plus get a phone plan? That's the priciest option, $80.

Stephanie Rocha, who sells Clear for St. Petersburg computer repair shop Wizard IC Florida, canceled her cable Internet service and switched.

"This is cheaper than what I had, and it's faster," she said.

Whether you'll want a wireless connection as your only Internet access depends on the signal where you live, and also how you use the Web.

"Can you function with just a wireless broadband connection at home? You might," said Paul Eng, who covers electronics as Web senior editor for Consumer Reports.

Do you stream video on-demand? Have a lot of Web-connected appliances and home electronics? Play Web-connected video games?

"All that adds to the bandwidth burden in your home," Eng said.

So it makes sense to try wireless services on a trial basis before canceling other service. Even if there's a strong signal near your home, that's no guarantee it'll be great inside or in the room you prefer.

Meanwhile, fast-growing Clear, the retail brand of Clearwire Corp., has plenty of 4G competition. T-Mobile, MetroPCS and Sprint already offer 4G options, mostly for smart phones, air cards and hot-spot devices. (MetroPCS adds Tampa Bay to its 4G network early next year.) Other 4G networks are set to launch in the Tampa Bay market, such as Verizon's 4G LTE (long-term evolution) network, which debuts in the bay area and more than 30 other metros by the end of the year. In some cases it may be faster than Clear, with 5 to 12 megabit per second download speeds, and higher peaks. It hasn't announced pricing or devices, said spokesman Chuck Hamby.

AT&T is testing its own super-high-speed LTE network, which will roll out next year — though it's not clear when it will reach the Tampa market, said spokeswoman Kelly Starling.

Clearwire faces other challenges. While its investors include a range of heavy-hitters such as Intel Capital, Comcast, Sprint, Google, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, the company warned this month it will need a cash infusion to stay in business through the summer. Sprint, which owns more than half the company, may be forced to pony up more than $1 billion next year to keep it afloat. Still, this year Clear adds major metros such as Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco to its 62 markets.

Becky Bowers can be reached at (727) 893-8859 or bbowers@sptimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bbowerstimes.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: MetroPCS adds Tampa to its 4G LTE network in early 2011. An earlier version of this story was unclear on that point.

New Tampa Bay Internet provider Clear offers WiMax on-the-go 11/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 2, 2010 11:00am]
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