updated 03:05 pm EST, Tue November 10, 2009
Rogers HSPA Plus tested
Over the past few days, Electronista has had the opportunity to test Rogers' new HSPA+ 3G service to see whether or not it lives up to the cellular provider's claims and see what T-Mobile USA users can expect in the near future. With peak speeds of about 21Mbps, it's theoretically three times faster than the best anyone has to offer on a national level. We'll find out whether that's the case with Rogers' only USB modem for the service and provide an important tip for Mac OS X Snow Leopard users looking to sign on.
the Rocket Stick and getting online
Rogers likes to rebrand its modems as "Rocket Sticks" to add spice to their design, but they often come from different manufacturers with less than appealing names. For its HSPA+ network, it's the plainly-labeled ZTE MF668. As a piece of hardware, it's strictly functional: it has a retractable USB plug and a microSDHC card slot to hold added storage. The only complaint with the hardware is the slightly flimsy-feeling, thin plastic shell, though it held up in our testing.
The modem is fairly wide and may prove a problem for those with small notebooks where USB ports are close together. Plugging the modem in directly to our unibody 13-inch MacBook obscured the ports on either side, for example. Thankfully, Rogers and ZTE pack in a USB pass-through cable that restores access to those ports, provides another port for other devices, and should fit into very tightly-packed designs like the MacBook Air.
Setting up the MF668 for use is much as with most modern 3G sticks. Whether you're on a Mac or a Windows PC, the only usual requirement is to plug in the modem for the first time and load an installer for the Connection Manager, either automatically or from the modem as a mounted drive. The app comes autoconfigured to go online and was seemingly ready to go -- or so we thought.
We discovered to our dismay that, as is, the Connection Manager won't work properly in Mac OS X Snow Leopard: it will always recognize the network but will generate a PPP error whenever you try to connect. The only solution we've found so far is a set of terminal commands that prevent the Connection Manager from loading and instead use Snow Leopard's built-in 3G modem support to make the link. This, thankfully, is quick to implement and works well without affecting features, although we should warn that Rogers understandably won't provide help for that kind of setup.
We've contacted Rogers about the issue and have been told there will be an answer soon, but users of the newer Mac OS will, for now, want to either follow those instructions or wait for an updated Connection Manager.
Regardless of your platform, the experience improves dramatically once you actually use the service. We didn't get close to the peak 21Mbps of the HSPA+ spec, but nor did we expect to; many carriers, including Rogers, will readily admit that the inherent nature of connecting to a distant tower with others on the network will slow it down.
What we did get, however, was not only fast but proportionately closer to peak speeds than earlier HSPA. We tested both indoors and outdoors at different points in town and saw an average of about 6.75Mbps downstream and about 2Mbps upstream, both of which are more than three times faster than what we've usually seen on Rogers' regular HSPA service. It's only a third of what HSPA+ theoretically supports, but this compares much more favorably to the quarter speeds or less we've seen on regular HSPA networks.
There was some fluctuation, but we never saw speeds drop below 5.25Mbps down and 900Kbps up. Latency was low, too: our average ping time on test servers ranged between 68ms and 88ms, both of which are low enough to be reasonable for lag-sensitive services like video chat. The overall experience was fast enough that we'd compare it more closely to a landline connection from as little as a few years ago than the slow, lag-prone 3G we've been used to.
wrapping up and a word on bandwidth caps
After a short trial, it's hard not to be enthusiastic about HSPA+ service in general. It's the first cellular Internet service outside of WiMAX to provide an experience that doesn't feel tangibly different than a wired connection or joining a Wi-Fi network. There's a certain freedom to using a notebook in a park with speeds closer to the cable modem or DSL router at home.
That said, we think Rogers, T-Mobile and other carriers moving to HSPA+ will quickly have to adjust their cap limits to reflect the greatly increased bandwidth of their networks. At $35 Canadian ($33 US) for 1GB of data and as much as $85 Canadian ($81 US) for 5GB, those using Rogers' Internet service have the same headroom as they did just six months ago but are going to reach that limit three times faster -- a real problem that forces users to either opt for a higher tier or to risk overage fees disproportionate to how much the bandwidth actually costs. American providers charge less for 5GB but, as of today, don't offer any more without overage fees.
As such, we really hope that providers upgrading to HSPA+ and eventually 4G boost their caps dramatically. The technology is now there to handle the stress of frequent mobile data use, and service options for us subscribers need to reflect this.