Monday, February 4, 2013

A month with UQ WiMAX

My wife recently ordered an iPad Mini, just to see what the fuss about tablets is all about. As it's a toy she sensibly doesn't want to be locked in on a multi-year 3G contract, especially not with Softbank. So she got the wifi-only version, and we got a WiMAX router and subscription from Bic Camera instead. That way we can both use it, with her tablet as well as with my N7 and laptop.

The contract terms from Bic Camera are pretty good:
  • 3880 yen a month ("BIC Fixed Year Passport")
  • 3150 yen application fee
  • Unlimited data, a WiMAX wifi router and a 10k yen discount on a tablet or similar device
  • Automatic yearly renewal
  • Free cancellation during 30 days before the renewal date
  • 9975 yen cancellation fee otherwise
The application fee and cancellation fee doesn't even quite cover the retail cost of the router, so it's a fairly reasonable price even before you add in the 10k device discount. if you want two routers (see further below) it actually pays to apply for one router, cancel the account, then reapply with two routers.

There's other plans available, including a daily and a monthly plan and a "hybrid" plan with AU's 3G network that gives you expanded coverage.

A few more details:
  • Service is "best effort", with no numerical speed guarantees
  • Outbound port 25 is blocked to avoid spammers. If you need SMTP mail routing (a normal user does not) they recommend using port 587 instead.
  • If you try to push enough data through at once that it impedes the use of the network for others, they will drop your effective data rate to avoid trouble.
WiMAX is sort of long-range, high-speed Wifi, and is intended mostly as a way to connect homes and offices to the net at high speed without having to pull cable under streets and through buildings. The speed is higher than the mobile phone data networks and you get unlimited data, but coverage is not nearly as good. The (slow, badly coded) coverage map shows that coverage is good around major cities and university campuses, patchy along the high-speed rail networks and in smaller towns, and thin to non-existent elsewhere. This covers most people and businesses, and they offer a free trial period so you can test the coverage yourself.

The URoad-SS10. Small and light enough to go in any pocket or anywhere together with your phone.

The router we got — URoad SS-10 — is small and trivially easy to use. It's the size of a small, thin deck of cards and acts as a wifi hotspot. You switch it on, pick the router on your phone, tablet or PC, and enter the key printed on the back of the router. They claim 9 hours on one charge, and I get over ten hours with the Nexus 7 and light to moderate use. The standard Mini-USB connector makes it trivial to top it up at work or power it from your laptop should you need to. It takes about a minute to a working connection when you power it up, but there's a sleep button that will wake it up much faster. Out of the box it is just a little flaky; on occasion you need to restart it when it gets confused about whether it's connected or not.

The coverage seems fine in practice. Reception at home is good, and surprisingly it's better in the middle of the apartment than near the windows. I get 14mbit/s down and 7mbit/s up; a decent speed, and much better than when I tether to my phone. I got the same speed to our old wireless router connected to a fast wired network, so I suspect the wifi could be the bottleneck here, not the WiMAX network.

When we got this, the ping latency was around 150-250ms. I updated the firmware just a couple of days ago1, and the ping times have dropped to the 70-80ms range. It's much too early to tell if the flakiness above is gone, but I haven't had that problem yet.

Coverage is good out on the street, in most buildings and on above-ground trains. Even with a marginal connection the transmission speed is still about 4-5Mbit/s down and 1-2mbit/s up, more than good enough for normal use. The router does get quite warm when the signal deteriorates or disappears, but it's never uncomfortably hot and I appreciate the hand-warmer effect in winter. There's no signal in the subway and none at my desk at work — but I don't get a phone data connection either so it's not WiMAX specific. On the Shinkansen it tends to briefly lose connection now and again, especially between Kyoto and Nagoya. Overall I haven't found any coverage issues where I move about.


We got the WiMAX router for my wife's new iPad. But the tablet was on back-order, so I used the router with my Nexus 7 and my computer until it arrived. The experience has been very positive. So positive, in fact, that I decided I really want this for myself too, even though I can already tether to my phone with wifi. UQ offers a pair-type contract where you can have two routers for just another 200 yen per month, or 4100 yen per month in total. The one drawback is that you can't use both routers at the same time. If one of us is already connected, the other one can't connect. But we figure that collisions should be unusual, and it has yet to happen in practice.


So, who could make use of this? Here's a few situations where this can come in very handy:

  • You live in a short-term kind of situation. Perhaps you're here in Japan for just a year or so, or you're temporary working somewhere away from your regular home. Perhaps you're doing weekly commutes between two places. This will give you unlimited internet for both computer and phone without the hassle of a contract for a wired connection to a temporary place.
  • You don't have a smartphone or a data plan, but you want a tablet. For many people, having both a smarthpone and a tablet would be redundant (and truly, I mostly rely on my N7 these days). With a router like this you can connect any tablet to the net without having to buy a locked version or get stuck in a multi-year contract with a mobile carrier.
  • You have multiple devices and want to use them all, everywhere, all the time2. A separate data plan for each device would become incredibly expensive. Tethering to your phone is a solution — and the one I've used up until now — but it tends to cost extra, usually has data limits, is only available with a few phones and will drain your phone battery. A single WiMAX router lets you connect any devices you want. You could even cancel your phone data plan altogether, though it is pretty handy as a back-up for when WiMAX coverage is lacking.
  • You want to use a computer on the road. The phone networks such as LTE are OK for phones and tablets, but the data-limits are completely inadequate for regular computer use. My monthly 7Gb phone allotment covers my phone and tablet use quite nicely, but I'd exhaust that in a week or less with my laptop — or in a day or two if I tried to work over the connection.
  • You play Ingress, watch Youtube or do anything else that needs a good, steady data connection while out and about.

Would I recommend this? Yes, I would. Do I use it myself? Yes, I do, and happily. In fact, my smartphone recently met with an accident involving a set of concrete stairs, and I've come to realize I now rely almost exclusively on the Nexus 7 and WiMAX for apps and internet nowadays. I may even go back to a "feature phone" to save on my monthly bill.



#1 Updating the firmware is commendably easy on this device: connect through the router wifi, go to the internal web server with your browser — it explicitly supports all modern browsers and has a separate page for mobile browsers — click the "system" tab, then click "update firmware".

I'm a bit conflicted about this kind of thing in general. We shouldn't have to do something like this to fix problems with our devices. Indeed, most consumers would never even know to look for this kind of solution, much less have the confidence to actually go through with it.

I increasingly believe this should fall on the shoulders of the actual seller of the device, whether it be a router, a digital camera or whatever: They, or the maker, should briefly inform the customer that there may be updates in the future that fixes problems, and offer to collect an email address used only to tell them when an update is available. The email would link to instructions, but also offer the customer to bring their thing to the store and have a clerk update it for them. It wouldn't have to be a burden; offering this as part of the in-store service could be a nice differentiator for physical shops against their online competitors.


#2 Guilty as charged.


17 comments:

  1. I got a wimax router (Uroad-7000SS) from Jcom (3680 yen per month).
    I agree with all what you said but would add that these routers have very bad batteries. After a few months, the battery is useless (no more than a few minutes). I can use it only while connected (USB) to my laptop.

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  2. My U-Road served me well for over a year and a half, that was one of the ones from late 2010, which was rated at 8 hours and down to about 5-6 hours by the 1.5 year mark. Still plenty healthy for my usage at that time.

    I chose not to renew it because of the WiFi or WiMax flakiness. Seems different models are flaky in different ways. For example, mine would have flaky WiFi, where I would need to disconnect my laptop or phone and reconnect it (my phones would mostly be unable to stay connected long, for that matter, especially Sharp-made phones); while my friend's U-road router, different model, has a flaky WiMax where he needs to sometimes reboot it to get a connection back.

    I've found WiMax the most flaky when on the move (Eg in the Yamanote or Joban lines, or on the express Keio line) and useless on the Shinkansen (back in 2011), underground, in basements, and in my new apartment which is all made of concrete (LTE works fine there, though).

    These days I'm using a mix of LTE tethering from my AU phone and Wi2Premium wifi network, which is available pretty much everywhere I go (cafés) where I would need to pull out my laptop or tablet. Wi2 costs ¥380/month, no contract, is fast in most places (Shinjuku's Starbucks are always crowded and their WiFi is slow), unlimited, etc. Can register up to 5 MAC addresses for auto-login, which is pretty convenient. For the times where I'm not in a café with Wi2 and I _need_ some connection, I have tethering, but as mentioned in the article, the data caps make that less convenient.

    For the moment, that's good enough for what I do and how much I'm willing to pay.

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  3. The connection along the Tokaido Shinkansen between Osaka and Tokyo is so-so but usable. The basic problem is, I think, that WiMAX isn't primarily a mobile network so handover is clumsy. Underground is hopeless. Works well in our (concrete) apartment.

    And I have to reiterate that after the firmware update I have had no connection issues with the router, and I use it quite a lot during each day *cough* Ingress *cough*. It all works quite smoothly. Wi2 is not really an option for me as I don't spend much time in places where wifi is typically available (see: Ingress). I'll keep an eye on the battery situation, though.

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  4. How does this compare to tethering on eMobile, especially in terms of having a near ever-present connection? Like many, I want to be able to read news and do email and calendaring everywhere. These don't need speed. Being fast enough for youtube videos would be the most I would expect. At home and in the office, I have access to WiFi.

    I currently tether with a Galaxy Note on docomo, but the experience is terrible. The connection often, often breaks while on the trains between Kawasaki and Ofuna (this is due to a general docomo network problem, I think), and even when I am stationary, with a decent connection to docomo, the data connection on the phone goes to sleep, like a PPPoE connection. If I turn on the screen of my phone and open an app that uses the cell data connection, then suddenly the tethering connection resumes.

    I know this site used to be called "softbanksucks", but for keeping a working data connection, whether moving or not, docomo sucks too.

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  5. AnotherWorldCitizenFebruary 10, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    I've used WiMax (also via BIC Camera) for a year. I cancelled it last month not because I was not satisfied with the service, but because of the contract renewal term (no monthly rolling contract). Saying that, aside from the weaknesses already mentioned (useless in metro, etc.), WiMax can become completely useless when you go to the countryside (far sooner than mobile internet).

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  6. My Wimax router died last week. Called Jcom who refused to repair or replace it. They said that I could just buy any wimax router on the market and they would register it. Quite disingenuous when I found that all routers are sold at the same price (JPY 17,800). I found one on Amazon at JPY 8,000 but wasn't sure what it was. Canceled my Jcom wimax account and went out to look for something else. Jcom would not allow me to register a new account which is bad since they charge JPY 200 less per month than all other carriers.

    I then tried to buy a router upfront to get points from the retailer (Yamada, Bic, Yodobashi; they have all the same) but found out out that all LTE routers have the same stupid 7Gb limit. For emobile, the limit is 10Gb and it will kick in automatically on April 2014. The only one which seems unrestricted (not entirely sure though) is Willcom but it is not LTE and maybe even not 3G.
    UQ Wimax seems the only solution but wimax is very weak in higher floors of buildings and wimax does not allow you to buy the router upfront.

    For the time being, I am tethering my old unlimited HTC from Softbank with PDANet and have not been charged or penalized in any ways so far but consistent tethering will certainly show up in the data figures (even without tethering I consume app. 13Gb per month).
    Sorry for this long grunt but the 7Gb data limit is certainly the worst scam by Japanese carriers since the theft of the JPY 80,000 phone line upfront fee by NTT.

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  7. There is a rolling monthly contract available, as I mention above. But it does cost a bit more per month of course, and as you say, this is a service mostly for urban areas. It is a different beast from long-range wireless services, for good and bad.

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  8. My guess is, WiMAX will be plenty worse. Both 3G and LTE coverage is much better — both are made to be truly mobile, area-covering services after all, while WiMAX really is intended primarily as a "last-mile" wireless interconnect to stationary clients. The major positive difference really is the unlimited data rate for a very modest fee, not the speed itself. As you say, I was (and am) quite happy with the 3G speed I got from tethering to my phone already.

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  9. Hi, looking for a good pocket wi-fi now, whave you tried pocket wifi from softbank, or emobile? I'm now juggling between the 2, I did consider the wimax for the unlimited usage thing, but atm a bit leaning towards softbank because of their monthly limit (emobile has got this daily limit/throttle thing). any info / pointers? it seems so hard to find these information in english!

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  10. Most of my game use p2p for download and update do this wimax device allow it ?

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  11. Unlimited Internet means little when the connection doesn't even work half of the time. I have had mine since January and the connection was so bad I went in to the WiMax counter, they said they fixed it the problems persist. I will need to find a better mobile solution, since this is not a solution at all when you carry around a device with a weak battery, and the signal doesn't even allow me to connect to the Internet. I was only able to find this particular article because my friend's house has WiFi.

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  12. Hello Thanks you for the information!
    I have a question! Is it able to Forward a port on this modem?
    I'm experiencing problem, with finding the right modem and provider which is able to open some particular ports.
    Thank you in Advance

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  13. Internet is accessed mostly in 2 ways – wireless and broadband. WiMax combines these two and gives fast broad band Internet access on wireless connection. This Internet can be accessed on a long distance. http://www.whatisall.com/technology/what-is-wimax.html

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  14. I understand that the outbound port 25 is blocked to avoid spammers and they recommend using port 587 instead.

    What is the SMTP server host name? (for example somthing like: mail.wimax.co.jp or smtp.wimax.co.jp)

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  15. Thanks for a very informative and exhaustive review. Am in the market for a mobile internet solution having just returned to Japan. My situation. Currently no residence (alien registration) card, and do not want to be locked into a long term contract. Understand the pro and cons of WiMAX coverage vs 3G mobile data limits.
    Q. Can I get this without a residence card?
    Q. Who offer the best deal? Bic Camera?
    Q. Seem to be a number of hardware issues, namely battery life. Any recommended models?

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  16. Well, there are some things to note:
    1. The 7GB limit from Softbank and Docomo is not a "hard" limit, but a "soft" one. They slow your speed down to 128k (or something like that) once you reach that limit unless you want to pay more. 128k still works fine for email without attachments, light web browsing, etc.
    2. "normal" eMobile LTE data contracts have a per-day limit which will be converted into the 10GB monthly limit in mid 2014 and they also rate limit you, but with the rate limiting in effect, it is still like 2 Mbps or more - so I don't even notice it because stuff like YouTube, Hulu, etc. still works fine. (if you get a contract from emobile that uses the Softbank axgp network, then the terms will be the same as a Softbank contract, though!) The new (Softbank) eMobile has also been trying to trick people into "upgrading" their contracts by giving free router upgrades. A faster router isn't any use if you are more rate limited! btw: Until recently, eMobile didn't work well on the subways either.
    You can buy a WiMax router used at many places, which is what I would do if my router died. I am not sure what you mean about not being able to buy one upfront.

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  17. Softbank slows you down MUCH more than traditional eMobile once you reach your limit.

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