John Dickinson - Sprint Broadband Internet Service

John Dickinson

The antenna on my house and the mountain about 19 miles away that has Sprint's antennas. (The photograph has emphasized the antenna which is not visible from the front of the house.)

Sprint Broadband Internet Service

Sprint Broadband Has Ceased Operations

Sprint Broadband has had an "on again", "off again" history and is now "off" for good.

  • Sprint Broadband started operations in Tucson sometime in 1999 or 2000.
  • On October 19, 2001, Sprint sent an e-mail to Sprint Broadband customers saying "We are suspending our effort to acquire new residential and commercial Sprint Broadband Direct customers. If you are a current Sprint Broadband Direct customer this will not affect you." They were hoping to migrate to next generation technology with more capacity and not limited by line-of-sight. This was supposed to come in 2002. It didn't happen.
  • In July 2005, Sprint Broadband announced that they are "once again signing up new customers," reversing their nearly four-year suspension of marketing.
  • Sometime in 2008, Sprint Broadband started shutting down operations in selected cities until there was no more Sprint Broadband service.

This web page now serves no purpose other than providing a little history and insight into what Sprint Broadband was.


Overview

Sprint Broadband is a high-speed fixed wireless service. I switched from phone line modem Internet access at home to Sprint Broadband in August, 2000. Five years later in October, 2005, I switched from Sprint Broadband to Cox Cox Communications cable Internet service. While Sprint Broadband provided good, reliable service for me for over five years, they had intermittent speed and brief down-time problems in the Tucson service area in September and October of 2005. When they didn't resolve these problems in a timely manner, I decided to switch to cable.

Prior to Sprint Broadband, I couldn't get high-speed Internet service:

  • DSL has been commonly available for a few years, mostly through StarNet. DSL is not available to my house because our telephone line uses a fibre-optic connection shared by many users en-route to the central office. Generally, DSL requires a copper link.
  • The Cox Communications cable system provides high speed Internet access, but deployment was miles away at the time I got SprintBroadband. It's now available in my area.
  • I was out of the Gain Wireless service area and their price was out of my range. They now appear to be out of business.

When I heard about Sprint Broadband, I signed up.

I believe there is no "best" broadband solution and all these complementary technologies will survive. Each has advantages and disadvantages and no one service is available to everyone.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Sprint Broadband

Of course, the biggest advantage is speed. It's easy to think in terms of speed alone, but there are other advantages:

  • Doesn't tie up a phone line. In fact, there is no connection or changes to the phone system at all. Sprint Broadband is a completely independent system. (I was surfing the web during a phone outage and could have used the web to report the problem.)
  • It's always on. There is no need to manually connect. If your computer is on, it's connected to the Internet.
  • My wife and I can both use the Internet at the same time.

The biggest disadvantage is that the antenna must be within line-of-sight to the single radio tower that serves the Tucson metropolitan area. Even so, this covers most of Tucson.

Some may object to the small antenna and you need a suitable place for Sprint to mount it.

Sprint Broadband also costs more than a dial-up ISP. The cost is more reasonable when you realize there is no need for a second phone line.

The basic residential charge is $49.95 per month and $9.95 per month for an additional static IP address to support a second, simultaneous computer. (Initially, the price was $39.95 per month...) Equipment costs $99 with a two-year contract and the installation fee was waived. You save the cost of your current ISP and additional phone line, if any. The Sprint charges include ISP service from Earthlink.

Equipment

Users get two new pieces of equipment: An antenna and a wireless modem/router. Both are small. The antenna is about 13 inches square and only needs to be high enough to "see" Sprint's antenna. In my case it is on about a short pole attached to an eve. It's not even visible from the street. I am about 19 miles from the transmitter site and the limit is 35 miles. The wireless modem/router sits on my desk and isn't much bigger than a phone line modem.

Mohd in Tucson, , took the antenna apart and took these cool pictures of the inside of the antenna.

There are also two small power supplies: One for the wireless modem/router and one for the antenna. The antenna's power supply feeds a small inline coaxial adapter in the feed line. (The antenna needs power because it also amplifies the signal and converts it to an intermediate frequency for the modem.)

The wireless modem/router uses an Ethernet connection to the computer. Sprint supplies an Ethernet card, if needed, at extra cost. Our computers were already Ethernet ready.

Apparently, the modem/router is supplied as either a single-user or multi-user device. If you ordered a single computer connection, you may have gotten the single-user model. If you order a an additional IP address at $9.95 a month for another computer, you get the multi-user model.

Sprint provides a static IP address for each computer and a gateway IP address. The modem/router supports DHCP configuration. It's easiest to let the computers get the IP address automatically, although each computer could be configured for a fixed address. While a static IP address is provided, the Sprint Policies, in particular the Acceptable Use Policy, do not permit running a server. Also, you can't use your connection to provide service to others. You should read the policies and agreement before you have service installed. It has a number restrictive clauses that you may object to. Don't be surprised later.

If you want to use more than one computer with Sprint Broadband, you have at least two choices.

  • You can purchase one or more additional IP addresses from Sprint for a monthly fee of $9.95 each and cable their wireless modem to an Ethernet hub. I took this approach to attach a second computer when I first got the Sprint Broadband service. I opted to buy an inexpensive 8 port 10BaseT hub myself rather than purchasing a hub from Sprint. There is no need for 100 megabit Ethernet because, fast as Sprint Broadband is, it is still comfortably within the capability of 10 megabit networking. Although these days, 100 megabit Ethernet is almost ubiquitous so you may want to spend a few extra dollars and be more up-to-date.

  • You can also supply your own proxy server or router, eliminating the need for one or more additional IP addresses from Sprint. These days, a combined rounter and hub, such as those from LinkSys is almost essential for security reasons. Sprint said that connecting additional computers by doing my own routing was permitted, but not supported. Therefore, if problems arise, they may expect me to restore the system to the supported single-computer configuration. This is fair, in my opinion.

    Linksys makes an interesting and relatively inexpensive device for this purpose called an EtherFast Cable/DSL Router. In addition to sharing the IP address, this device is a firewall. The 4 and 8 port versions are also Ethernet switches, eliminating the need for a hub. By following their links to "Service and Support" you can read the user manual. It explains considerably more about the product as well as configuration and setup. Setup is non-trivial as compared to the second IP you can purchase from Sprint. I have also seen several reports from users who are delighted with the NetGear model RT314 cable/DSL router but I have no personal experience with it.

    After a few months of Sprint Broadband service, I purchased an 8 port Linksys Cable/DSL Router and dropped the second IP address from Sprint. Sprint's modem now connects to the Linksys with a crossover Ethernet cable (not the usual "straight-through" Ethernet cable which won't work for this connection). The Linksys setup has lots of options. I took all the defaults and it works perfectly. The Linksys uses DHCP to get TCP/IP configuration settings from Sprint's wireless modem. In turn, the computers use DHCP to get TCP/IP configuration settings from the Linksys. In both cases, configuration settings could be hard-coded, but I find automatic configuration with DHCP works well and is a snap.

    Instead of a dedicated hardware router, you can set up a computer to provide the proxy services, allowing each computer to have a local network IP address, but to appear to the Sprint wireless modem/router as a single IP address. I don't know much about doing this and there must be a million ways.

I declined Sprint's offer to install Earthlink software. You don't need special software.

Technology

The key technology for Sprint Broadband comes from Hybrid Networks, Inc., which is apparently out of business as their web site is gone. They supplied the modem/router and equipment at the transmitter site as well. Sprint uses an antenna assembly from California Amplifier called a Planar Transceiver.

Performance

Sprint advertises typical rates of 512 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps download and up to 256 Kbps upload speeds.

After using a phone modem for so long, there is an expectation that web pages will simply fly on the screen. The wireless link is fast enough to do that, but the reality is that the Internet involves considerable overhead and delays, depending on the source. No matter how fast the local connection, Internet performance is always highly variable.

The fast speed alters the way I use the Internet, opening it up considerably. There is no longer any reason to decide whether trying to view a page will be worth the wait. Waiting is no longer a major Internet activity. I am free to investigate pages of marginal interest or need without a big investment of time. Large graphics and pages are no longer a problem. There is often a pause before the page starts to load and then it generally completes in its entirety. Some pages "snap" into place essentially instantaneously.

I find download speeds vary from 200 or 300 Kbps to in excess of T1 (1.544 Mbps) rates. It is not uncommon to see 2 Mbps or even 3 Mbps. When performance test tools report upload speeds, they are usually in the 30 to 70 Kbps range. I did a quick FTP file upload test and saw speeds up to about 150 Kbps. I didn't study upload speeds carefully. For files of moderate size, uploads seem much faster than a modem.

I don't check speed very often. Suffice it to say that download speed is plenty fast enough, but variable. This variable nature bothers some people who prize consistency over speed. Upload speeds (in my sector at least) have been very bad at times -- slower than a modem. This also affects download throughput.

As another speed indicator (but not a real accurate one...), my daughter got a cable modem in Wyoming right after it went in, so the load should be low and speeds high. She visited here and used the Sprint connection quite a bit. I asked her how it compared to cable and she said: "About the same.... maybe even a little faster than cable." I was amazed. Now that I have switched to using a cable connection after five years with Sprint Broadband, I'd say that cable is generally faster overall, but that a big download on Sprint Broadband could beat cable on a good day.

For all practical purposes, weather is a non-issue by design. The distance is limited and the system uses relatively low frequencies which aren't absorbed significantly by moisture in the air. In contrast, most satellites use higher frequencies that are more subject to "rain fade" and other atmospheric disturbances.

As Sprint Broadband deploys to more customers, it is possible they may "over-sell," resulting in decreased performance for some or all of their customers. There are some very negative reports (mostly from a gamer with different needs) on DSL Reports that indicate this may have happened in Phoenix. It is widely said that cable modem users share bandwidth, resulting in decreased performance at times of peak usage. I don't think it's quite the same with Sprint Broadband, but I have to assume that bottlenecks are possible somewhere in the system. If nothing else, they don't have unlimited radio spectrum. To some extent, if it is seeming slower, I think we're just getting used to the speed.

I don't have any direct experience with the e-mail or web page services available from Sprint's Earthlink ISP because I don't use them.

"Tweaking" Your System for Best Performance

When going to broadband, most Windows systems need at least one "tweak" to get optimum performance. The DSL Reports page Tweaking for speed has an explanation (Jump to topic RWIN) as well as a "Tweak Tester" which determines if you need to make any adjustments to Registry values. If changes are needed, there are pointers to solutions and explanations, although it may be more than you want to know.

The most critical value is the DefaultRcvWindow or TcpWindowSize which I have set to Sprint's recommended value of 49152 decimal (C000 hexadecimal). I believe this is the value that Sprint techs use if they adjust your system at installation time. I've also seen 64240 recommended. Sprint has a page of utility downloads that will adjust your registry setting to their recommended value. At installation the techs may have found your performance OK and decided not to make any registry adjustments. You should probably make the check yourself.

Keep in mind these "tweaks" are registry changes. You can get carried away trying to adjust many values and ultimately make things worse. However, the DefaultRcvWindow or TcpWindowSize appears to be a necessary adjustment that can make a dramatic difference in download speed.

Problems

From my experience and that of others, Sprint tends to have some administrative hassles setting up and installing new accounts at times, but they finally get it right. Don't be surprised if you have some kind of installation SNAFU. Each case seems to be different. I think they are doing the best they can.

There have been plenty of reports, comments and observations that Sprint is bursty. Perhaps another way of saying that is that there is a latency and that latency varies. Apparently this hurts gamers more than the average user. I am not a gamer. Those who use ping as their primary measurement tool may not be happy.

The biggest problem I have now and then is with Sprint's (Earthlink's?) DNS not recognizing some sites it should -- and the DNS has nothing to do with the wireless network. When I believe the DNS isn't working, I telnet to a completely different site and use nslookup (on different DNS servers) to manually find the IP address of the site I want. Then, I use the IP address instead of the site name in my browser and things come to life, proving the problem was caused by DNS. Generally, I use DHCP which returns 24.221.129.4 and 24.221.129.5 for the Tucson DNS's. If you are having problems in Tucson and want to try switching DNS's, try 24.221.30.3 and 24.221.30.4 in Phoenix. If you switch, be sure to change back later as you want to use DNS servers that are close to you for performance reasons. I could change the DNS settings to the Phoenix DNS servers, but I usually don't bother and don't want to leave them set on Phoenix. I keep thinking they'll fix it for good but it doesn't happen. Here's an unverified complete list of Sprint Broadband's DNS servers as supplied by a member of the SprintBroadband discussion group.

    Chicago          66.1.0.5      No Secondary
    Colorado Springs 24.221.192.5  24.221.208.5
    Denver           24.221.208.5  24.221.192.5
    Detroit          24.221.92.5   24.221.95.3
    Fresno           24.221.244.5  24.221.161.5
    Houston          24.221.225.5  No Secondary
    Melbourne        66.1.216.5    No Secondary
    Oklahoma City    24.221.208.5  24.221.208.160
    Phoenix          24.221.30.3   24.221.30.4
    Salt Lake City   24.221.248.5  24.221.208.5
    San Francisco    24.221.161.5  24.221.162.5
    San Jose         24.221.162.5  24.221.161.5
    Tucson           24.221.129.4  24.221.129.5
    Wichita          66.1.16.5     24.221.208.5
    

I have had intermittent problems failing to "get through" to sites, resulting in browser timeouts. When I did finally get through, pages loaded quickly and subsequent transfers were fast. Tech support didn't respond to my query on this problem and I have had no other reason to contact tech support. I hear the phone customer support is very good. I've never used it. A friend found this intermittent problem serious enough to cancel Sprint Broadband and go back to DSL, a choice I didn't have at the time. As of January 2001, this problem seems to have gone away.

For a long time I had never experienced any service outages except for about a minute once when it was dead. Then on July 4, 2001, I noticed a total outage of about an hour and a half. I was about to call support when it came back on. Others have experienced a few very brief outages. I feel like it's been (almost) "always-on" and outages are not an issue. However, Sprint Broadband had intermittent speed and brief down-time problems in the Tucson service area in September and October of 2005. As I write this (10/22/2005) these problems had not been completely resolved and I switched to cable.

Speed Test Sites

Sprint doesn't supply monitoring software. Here are a few speed test sites I've tried. You can use them with any type of Internet connection.

Discussion Groups

For more end-user information, comments and help,
subscribe to the SprintBroadband discussion list on Yahoo! Groups.

Enter your e-mail address and click the "Join SprintBroadband!" button.
Powered by groups.yahoo.com

There is also a Sprint Broadband forum at DSL Reports. From what little I've seen, the DSL Reports Sprint Broadband forum may have more activity and critical, complaining users. You be the judge.

Bottom Line

What's the bottom line?... Certainly I'm not going back to a phone modem. Indeed, I've seen some astonishing download times equal to several T1 lines. Cable is available in my area now at about the same prices as SprintBroadband and I finally switched to cable in October 2005. I think I'm getting somewhat better upload speed and less latency with cable, while I've lost my fixed IP address (a nice feature of Sprint Broadband). It may be that as SprintBroadband loses customers through attrition, the remaining customer's service will just get better, that is, more of the system bandwidth will be available to each user.


John Dickinson,