Comcast intros wireless broadband in Portland, can it replace wifi borrowing?

Comcast's (CMCSA) plans to launch WiMAX service in Portland, Ore. were announced in March to some skepticism. The company's rebranding of Clearwire's WiMAX network hearkened back to the old days of line resellers for long distance phone service, and many wondered whether the piggybacking would represent a cannibalization of Comcast's existing, and robust, home internet access services in the area. Many analysts expressed doubt that WiMAX could ever be successful anywhere with already-developed high-speed infrastructure. Comcast's "elegant" $1.5 billion investment in the Washington-based startup (yes, this is the first time I've ever heard "elegance" cited as a reason for an investment) was announced about a year ago. Today, the WiMAX service was rolled out, and while the critics and cheerleaders abounded, customers had yet to assert themselves. A sweet but flustered customer service representative couldn't find her cheat sheet and sent me to the web, instead, to check out the new plans.

I live in a busy inner eastside Portland neighborhood, and am a Comcast customer. We have a wireless router; so does our neighbor; and as do countless homes, coffeeshops, and businesses around us. When we open our wireless networking applications, a colorful panoply of neighbors' signals presents itself, and I often have to shut my router down for a bit to knock freeloaders off so I can watch yet another replay of Glee on Hulu. (World's best pilot! Ever!) While it's certainly possible to lock down one's wifi signal, a good percentage of Portlanders believe, like I do, in the value of sharing; and connectivity, to us, seems an inalienable right. It's not unusual to meet friends for a coffee work date at one of our hundreds of local cafes and coffeeshops and see every table busy with freelancers, writers, vidcasters, and the idle internet users with laptops open.

Existing infrastructure? Psha! Yes. It's here. Not just in the tens of thousands of home and commercial hotspots throughout the city, but also in the ubiquitous iPhones and Blackberries. I know of three distinct iPhone application support companies in Portland -- run by acquaintances. Who knows how many others there are. This: is a wired city.

We've been surprisingly unfriendly to public wifi, however; a free network put in place by MetroFi was turned off last year after the company had trouble finding the advertising revenue and for-pay upgraders to keep it operating. City officials were just happy the company had enough money to take the antennas off the telephone poles and streetlights where they were installed.

Called "Comcast High-Speed2Go," the service allows customers to connect from their laptops outside their homes, utilizing Clearwire's 4G Metro service when in Portland (or the other three cities -- Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago -- in which the service will be launched later this year), and to Sprint Nextel's nationwide network (they call it 4G/3G on the web site, but it's mostly the latter). To bundle wired and wireless "2Go" is only $49 a month; the service comes with a "FastPack," including a USB wireless modem to connect any laptop to the network. It's about $7 more than wired internet alone (although the company is running a six-months-at-$19.95 promotion in my zip code right now, so you'd pay a lot more than for wired-only if you were to sign up today).

Who will Portland prove to be correct? The skeptics who say only third-world countries will have success with WiMAX? Or the analysts at local investment banking firm Pacific Crest Securities, who say "as goes Portland, so goes the nationwide WiMAX network"? With the "aggressive" pricing, I predict this will take hold quickly in Portland and soon we will see wireless devices sprouting from laptops in parks and on bus benches already blazoned with "Clear" advertisements. Once the pricing goes up, as it inevitably will? Or if customers experience less-than-stellar signals while riding the MAX light rail to work? It could fall prey to the cost-cutting that keeps my wifi signal clogged with broke neighbors.

I'll try the new service, as I only have $7 a month to lose. But I don't know anyone else who is. After all, we've got our coffeeshops, our iPhones, and our ubiquitous and "aggressive" sharing. Portland: what say you?

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