I’ve been on vacation for the past few days, and prior to this trip I decided I wanted to stay connected wherever I was going – and the new broadband offerings from Cricket Wireless looked to be the perfect solution.
I was looking for something that did not involve signing a contract, but Verizon, Sprint and AT&T’s offerings were pretty expensive. They typically have a “small” data plan, around 250 Megs of transfer for a smaller fee, or an “Unlimited” offering for a fairly expensive rate, around $60 a month for most providers. The Cricket plan I signed up for is an “Unlimited” – read 5GB – plan for $40 a month, with no contract.
Cricket Wireless is relatively new in my area (Philadelphia), having only started providing service in March of 2009. They have been in other markets since 1999. Wireless Broadband has been an offering of their since 2007. Cricket is a subsidiary of Leap Wireless.
The way the “Unlimited” plan works, and why I need to use quotes on Unlimited, is that you get a 5GB quota, and then the speed your connection can be severely restricted to limit your bandwidth consumption. This connection, according to the Acceptable Use Policy you sign when signing up, is meant for “web only” or e-mail traffic; meaning that it is not supposed to be used for streaming video or music (up or down).
The USB Broadband Modem I purchased is the Cricket A600. It was available on sale for $20 after rebate, which I thought was very reasonable considering you are not purchasing a contract with the modem. Usually providers will give you a roughly $200 price break on the modem if you sign up for a 1 or 2 year contract. This makes their offerings seem cheaper, even though you pay it in the long run.
Like I have alluded to previous, the big draw for the Cricket network is the cost of the unlimited package, $40 a month with no contract. There is a $25 activation fee. I would assume that this fee applies whether you are starting a new line of service, or if you allow your pre-payment plan to expire; necessitating a re-activation.
How does it work?
The way the modem works is when you first plug it in, it is recognized as a flash drive and the drivers are installed via Autorun. It currently only supports Windows and Mac OSX; their site specifically states it does not support Linux, although there are instructions on how to get the A600 working in Ubuntu. I am currently using the Windows 7 beta, it did not install correctly automatically – I had to manually install the device drivers using the setup file, and then the modem was installed and found on the next insert. So, even with a few hiccups, the A600 is ready for use on a number of operating systems. You can see the number of devices that are installed when you plug in the modem (Windows 7 screenshot):
As a bonus, the modem also works as a MicroSD card reader. This does not really help you if you do not have a MicroSD card laying around, I happed to have a 2GB one that plugged in and works as advertised. This might be a good thing to have if you are a travelling technician, you could place your thumbdrive programs on this device and have a ready-to-go connection and troubleshooting device.
Connectivity is provided by “dialing in” to the Cricket network using their provided application, as seen below:
The program has a few functions:
- Connect/Dial In to the network
- Keep track of incoming/outgoing text messages
- Bandwidth manager (did not work on Windows 7)
The program seemed to work as advertised and the big connect/disconnect button is easy enough for the most inexperience internet user to understand.
The Network and Speed Tests
The Cricket Broadband network looks like it piggybacks on the Verizon or Sprint EVDO data networks. So chances are if you do not have these networks available, you would not get Cricket to work either. I had connectivity results that I had expected, in areas that are highly populated I had excellent connectivity (4/4 bars) and at other locations “in the sticks” I had only 1 or 0 bars. I was able to get connection in most places, even if the signal was very poor.
The data network always read “EVDO Rev A” which has a maximum “burst” rate of 2.45 Mbit/s to 3.1 Mbit/s. I tested in many locations; my speed with a “full” connection averages about ~ 500kbps download and ~ 200kbps upload. With a 0 or 1 bar connection I was still seeing a 500kbps download but a paltry 70kbps upload. Don’t expect this connection to replace your home broadband or wifi connection, it was pretty much impossible to watch a YouTube video, the same with any sort of multimedia content. You may be able to stream a highly compressed music stream. SSH, FTP, SFTP all seemed to work – one of my concerns being a system administrator was that these ports would be blocked, but I seemed to have an unfettered connection. I did try Logmein, on my “weak” signal it did not seem to want to connect but worked pretty well with a full signal.
Another thing I seemed to encounter with a poor signal was loss of connection. Since you are basically dialing in (my wife exclaimed, “I haven’t dialed in for 10 years!”) if you lose the signal for a few moments you get disconnected. It is not horrible, because you can reconnect, but the Cricket dialup program did not give me a notice or sound an alarm, I just started getting “Page not accessible” errors in my browser. If you are connecting in an area that has a poor signal, expect to be frustrated with your Cricket connection. It is not necessarily their problem, but it is worth mentioning.
Your connection locally is issued a private network in the 10.100.x.x range. Ping times varied from 80ms to 120ms. Do not expect to be able to do online FPS gaming from this connection. For your perusal is a traceroute from the Cricket connection in Ocean City, NJ to www.yahoo.com.
1 61 ms 59 ms 65 ms 172.30.218.x 2 60 ms 65 ms 66 ms 172.28.49.x 3 64 ms 66 ms 57 ms 172.16.8.x 4 70 ms 73 ms 64 ms ge-8-16.car1.Philadelphia1.Level3.net [220.127.116.11] 5 172 ms 68 ms 70 ms ae-7-7.ebr2.Washington1.Level3.net [18.104.22.168] 6 73 ms 65 ms 72 ms ae-62-62.csw1.Washington1.Level3.net [22.214.171.124] 7 83 ms 70 ms 82 ms ae-61-61.ebr1.Washington1.Level3.net [126.96.36.199] 8 102 ms 89 ms 91 ms ae-2.ebr3.Atlanta2.Level3.net [188.8.131.52] 9 119 ms 106 ms 107 ms ae-7.ebr3.Dallas1.Level3.net [184.108.40.206] 10 110 ms 138 ms 108 ms ae-41-90.car1.Dallas1.Level3.net [220.127.116.11] 11 104 ms 102 ms 98 ms YAHOO-INC.car1.Dallas1.Level3.net [18.104.22.168] 12 102 ms 149 ms 104 ms ae2-p130.msr2.mud.yahoo.com [22.214.171.124] 13 102 ms 99 ms 100 ms te-9-1.bas-c2.mud.yahoo.com [126.96.36.199] 14 110 ms 103 ms 98 ms b1.www.vip.mud.yahoo.com [188.8.131.52]
When all is said and done, you have to appreciate that having this little device and signing up for the Cricket Broadband service, for $40 a month and no contract, gets you an internet connection wherever you go, at least wherever you have signal. Although I suspect that a direct Verizon, Sprint or AT&T broadband connection would give you faster access, I do not think it would expand your coverage and you would pay a lot more for it. Cricket gets you a decent connection for a fair price, and I think that is worth it. If you are expecting a wired connection speed then look elsewhere, but as long as your demands are reasonable, you should be happy with Cricket Wireless Broadband.
I would recommend this modem to anyone who is looking for a web connection that is extremely portable and inexpensive. As long as your bandwidth demands are not exceedingly high, you should be happy with this modem.
If anyone has clarifications on whether Cricket Wireless owns their own equipment (from tower to net) please let me know. I would just assume they ‘resell’ Verizon, Sprint or other “1st tier” provider wireless towers instead of building their own, which would be very expensive.
Also, I discovered you do not need to use the applet they provide to log into the Cricket wireless network. On Windows 7 at least, you can dial in directly with Windows’ Network Connection Center.