Home Internet users have long complained they don't have enough options when it comes to high-speed connections. In most locales, including Houston, you usually have a choice of two: the telephone company and the cable company.
Yes, there are some outliers — a handful of independent DSL providers, which still ride in over the dominant telco's wires, and satellite Internet, which is laggy, expensive and burdened with low usage caps.
But alternatives are appearing. Mobile carriers are getting aggressive about marketing to both home and mobile Internet users. Traditional Internet providers are upping the ante with faster offerings.
Here are three new options that show just how the Internet access landscape is changing.
• Clear — $30 and up, Clearwire, www.clear.com. The first really new high-speed Internet provider to hit Houston in a while, Clear connects you to the Net using a wireless technology dubbed WiMax. The name implies that it's Wi-Fi on steroids, and that's a good way to think of it.
Clear offers both home and mobile versions of its service. I tested the mobile version, which uses a USB modem that plugs into a Windows or Mac computer, with download speeds up to 6 megabits a second.
The home plan provides the same download speed, with bursts of up to 10 Mbps.
However, it's not available everywhere in Houston. Clear's coverage map, available on its website, is uneven, with areas of light and dark green indicating quality of coverage.
If you live in a light-green area, you can only get mobile service. If your home is in a dark-green region, Clear will sell you the home version.
In my tests, Clear reliably provided the advertised download speeds, and upload speeds averaged around 500 kilobytes a second.
It worked well inside my house, but not at my desk at work downtown, where I had no signal at all. I had to get close to a window before the USB modem could connect.
Clear offers different combinations of its services. You can get mobile or home only; a combo mobile-home package; and there's Voice Over IP phone service. You can also get a USB modem that falls back to 3G wireless network service if you're not in a place where Clear has service. At this writing, Clear's in 25 cities, but expanding rapidly.
• Sprint Overdrive — $50 w/2-year contract, Web purchase; $60/month, Sprint, www.sprint.com/overdrive. Sprint just started offering what it's billing as a 4G data network. In this case, 4G is marketing speak for “faster than our older 3G network”.
In fact, Sprint's 4G network is actually Clear's network. Sprint — along with Comcast, Google, Intel and Time Warner — are all investors in Clearwire. (Comcast also is selling a version of Clear's mobile service.)
The Overdrive is a small device that talks to Sprint's 4G network, and as many as five users can connect to it via 802.11g Wi-Fi.
It's very similar to the palm-sized MiFi devices offered by Sprint, Verizon and AT&T, which work on those services' 3G networks, only the Overdrive is about twice as thick. It can talk to Sprint's 4G and 3G networks.
As with Clear's modems, the Overdrive provided advertised speeds of 6 Mbps down and about 500 Kbps up when connected to 4G. However, it occasionally would fall back to 3G, even when a 4G signal was available.
The device is full of handy features, including GPS capability, a slot for a memory card and a display that shows how many people are connected, what kind of network it's using and the quality of the signal.
Because the monthly fee is high, and it has a 5-gigabyte usage cap, it's best suited for mobile use.
But if your Internet needs are light, you could easily use this in your home, then grab it as you head out the door, taking your high-speed Net access with you.
• Extreme 50 — $99 a month, Comcast, www.comcast.com. With new competition, what's an established Internet provider to do? Why, crank up the speed, of course!
Comcast is rolling out DOCSIS 3.0, the next-generation cable-modem service, in Houston this year. It's not yet available in all parts of the area, though it was recently lit up in my part of town.
I went from a 16-Mbps Blast! service to Comcast's 50-Mbps Extreme 50 offering, with mixed results. Downloading big files was faster, provided the server I was accessing could meet my 50-Mpbs demands. Most standard Web pages loaded about as fast as before. YouTube, the Web's biggest source of video, still stuttered and buffered much too often, while I got an improved image and reliability from Netflix's streaming movies.
When the trial ended and I went back to my 16-Mbps service, I didn't miss the faster speeds.
I might feel differently if I'd started with Comcast's standard 6-Mbps service, except for one thing: In those areas where DOCSIS 3.0 is available, Comcast is bumping up that baseline to 12 Mbps.
Unless you're in dire need of massive bandwidth for video and downloading files and have a Benjamin a month to burn, you may want to just enjoy the free bump in speed that's coming.