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Review: Ecoweb’s 4G Mobile WiMax

Ecoweb Mobile Wimax Kit

A little more than two weeks ago we got hold of an Ecoweb 4g Mobile WiMax kit. We’ve been using it since.. Long enough to give a fair review. We cut the review up into separate sections so you can jump to the section you want. If you just want a summary of the review, scroll to the end of the post, there’s a brief summary there.

Buying Mobile WiMax

To get yourself up and running, approach an Ecoweb office near you and for $290 you’ll get yourself a modem and a month’s subscription.

The package looks like this:

Ecoweb Mobile Wimax Kit

That is a ZTE branded Mobile WiMax modem, a USB extension cable and an Ecoweb branded installation disk. The modem has a small and odd looking antenna which gets in the way sometimes (but can be folded down).

Setup

Connection ScreenshotThe modem doesn’t take any sim cards. It’s just a modem in the old telephone 56kb dial-up modem sense. To install, you insert the disk and click through the software installation. When it’s done, you insert the modem and let it automatically install its drivers. It’ll turn up a dialog box where you enter your Ecoweb assigned username and password. You’ll basically be up and running in less than 5 minutes. It takes about 2 seconds to connect after you click the connect button. Impressive! Soon as it connects, you’ll get notification that you’re connected to the Ecoweb network at 100mbps.

Coverage and Signal strength

Network coverage currently spans all Zim cities and most towns. See the coverage map here. A major network expansion project is currently underway and it looks like the intention is to make it as ubiquitous as the Econet mobile phone network. That said you’ll still get small uncovered spots (let’s call them cold-spots) within those covered areas. Small pockets like the Avondale shopping centre. We noticed a few more areas around Harare so, generally, don’t expect an always on experience when you’re on the move.

Searching for signals
Searching for Mobile WiMax signals

Sometimes manually searching for the signals like in the picture here will help.

The highest signal strength we got was 3bars on the network meter and we were about 500 meters from a base station. The rest of the time it was just 2 bars. An Ecoweb techie says you’ll rarely get the full 5 bars and that you don’t need to. It’s true. With the 2 bars we still got good internet 90% of the time. In some areas like Eastlea and Adbernie, we got 1 bar but were still able to browse.

Our advice here is to give Ecoweb your exact address and get assurance that you’re covered. If you discover upon getting home that there’s no reception, I’m sure you’ll get your money back without too much hassle.

Connection Speed

From your computer to Ecoweb, You’re definitely going to be connected at not less than 100mbps. Just to give an analogy: it’s like connecting to a computer on the same wired network in a building. Key word ‘Wired’. Faster than most Wi-Fi connections today.

Don’t expect though to be connected 100mbps to the Internet. It simply won’t happen and that’s not just an Ecoweb or Zimbabwe thing. It’s a 4G standard connection up to the base station you’re connected to. Beyond that there are too many variables out of your (and Ecoweb’s) control to guarantee you anything.

In fact, when your internet traffic gets to Ecoweb, you’re probably lumped onto the same satellite pipe with other Ecoweb international traffic services. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here; there’s always a bottleneck upstream.

You’ll find therefore that working (or playing for most of you) on international sites is not as good as the local ones. And like typical lumped services, the speed gets better at night when most of Zimbabwe goes to sleep.

Connection Stability

By stability here we mean the length of time the connection will stay up for a given number of hours. The answer to that is: very stable. Once you get a signal, you’ll stay connected so long it’ll start feeling like you are on a local network connection. We noticed even power blackouts don’t affect it. Obviously we speak for the areas we tested, which is the greater part of Harare.

In the two weeks we used it, it did go down a few times but the ‘downtime’ was so short it was hardly an inconvenience.

General Web browsing

For Techzim guys it comes very close to defining what broadband should be. We’d mislead you to say pages open in a snap. They don’t. Examples will say it better: a heavy Gmail inbox opens in about 5 seconds, local sites like Zimbabwe classifieds and the local newspapers open in about 2 seconds, Facebook in 2 – 3 seconds, the BBC in 4 seconds. Get the picture?

Voice

Voice is also doable without too much hassle. Skype, Gtalk and the like are all great even in the afternoons at peak traffic. Better voice quality at night when your UK based brother calls to say you how much he misses home.

Video Chat & Video Streaming

Video wasn’t as good as Voice, understandably. It’s hard to maintain a constant Skype Video chat during the day. At night you can do a video conversation but you’ll have to be content with a fuzzy experience.

Streaming video off sites like YouTube is also not a smooth experience. Expect to get 20 second buffering pauses for every 15 seconds of video you watch. Gets better at night with about 10 buffering and 15 seconds play.

File download speed

Downloads were not a disappointment at all. We downloaded 750MB in about 3 hours at night. You’ll probably do half that in the same time during the day.

Cost

When Ecoweb launched the service, our feeling was that the service is priced beyond the average earner. We still think so. To cut Ecoweb some slack here though, the reality is, if you’re a heavy internet user or just a business user and want reliable internet, this might actually be your best Internet deal in Zimbabwe. First, because you do get great Internet, and second, it’s unlimited traffic for the price you pay.

Ecoweb sales persons say they‘re tying this service to their modems. As in mobile WiMax modems sold by Ecoweb only. Apparently they won’t sell to a guy that already has his modem. We know this will change eventually. Remember this is how 3G started; with an overpriced priced modem sold only by the service provider and some recommended ‘agents’. You can be part of the change by sourcing your own modem and preparing for a lengthy argument you will win.

A Mobile WiMax modem
A Mobile WiMax modem on 4ginfo.com

Here’s an identical WiMax modem we found on 4ginfo.com in the US. At US$60, it costs just 35% of the Ecoweb one. Factor in your shipment and other getting-it-here costs and it still won’t get close to the US$175 Ecoweb is charging.

Operating System Support

Linux and Mac users are either not going to like this at all or they’ll take pleasure in the challenge. The Ecoweb sold WiMax modem only supports Microsoft Windows systems, XP going up.

No LinuxI’m no Linux hacker and I’d chosen this past week to migrate to Ubuntu 10.4 so this was a major frustration and setback for me. If someone develops or stumbles upon some Linux or Mac drivers, please let us know in the comments below. Better still if you can find you own WiMax receiver that has Mac or Linux support, let us know. Ecoweb says they’re working on it. It sounded like the kind of ‘working on it’ where you’re just handled politely to back you down.

Summary & Techzim Recommendation

This is reliable, stable and significantly fast internet. The small annoyance is the uncovered cold-spots. The local internet speed is great. The international not as great but that’s set to improve. Why? Because Econet (Through subsidiaries Ecoweb and Liquid) is laying a 4,500km fibre cable connecting to a Seacom cable in Beitbridge. So if anything, the speed is set to improve. Still there’s no telling how Ecoweb will play this in the next several months. It’s still possible for the service to get oversubscribed (and become slow) like Econet’s 3G did.

If the kind of business you do on the internet requires you to always be connected wherever you are, by all means buy this service. You will not regret it. A flat $100 per month for the stability and reliability we experienced is a good bargain. We’d expect IT departments to buy the service for employees that travel around the country a lot and for executives that need an always on internet connection. It’s a great deal for business.

If your internet browsing is just for social purposes and you have the $100 to spend a month, hey, you won’t be disappointed at all. If you can’t spare a $100, there are still cheaper options out there like the Econet 3G (only available on the black market for now though). You won’t get as much convenience and speed obviously.

Ecoweb’s Mobile WiMax offers genuine 4G standards between users and Ecoweb’s final node in Zimbabwe. That alone is a great feat. The downside is that Zimbabwe still has low capacity on outgoing internet pipes, so your internet traffic will be throttled when it leaves Zimbabwe, regardless of your perfect local 4G connection. But hey guys, pause here a second and take this in: We have a genuine 4G network here and all the cities and most towns are covered.

Like we have said before, the modem is still way overpriced; it’ll definitely come down in the next few months so a little patience will help. Gadget shops around the country will start importing them in boat loads from the east. A few have already started showing up in Harare, like this one on the Webdev classifieds.

We’d love to know your experiences in the comments section below.


Quick NetOne, Econet, And Telecel Airtime Recharge

34 thoughts on “Review: Ecoweb’s 4G Mobile WiMax

  1. This is tremendous news indeed for Zim as a whole. For too long we have lagged behind the rest of Southern Africa in terms of broadband access, and its about bloody time we got up to scratch.

    Strive, keep it up yo.

  2. An excellent review – nice to hear of positive developments with our connectivity issues – as above post requests would be beneficial if you could publish results of your speedtests – download vs upload

  3. I had the chance to have a look at the 4G stuff. In town it works perfectly well and did my surfing nicely in a 4 day conference and while having pizza with family. The problem is the cold spots. I am a heavy user of home internet after hours. I had to donate my EWZ 3G modem because it became so slow that i needed a couple of hours to send emails to some buddies. Even pages got to a stage where it was just too slow. 4G has been perfect but i am not sure of the impact of more subscribers coming on board. Of course it’s still pricey considering the cold spots in Harare. I can’t use it in Sunridge and Borrowdale (home & work) but hopefully they will resolve all of Harare. For $100 a month, it’s worth it. Given the circumstances of Zimbabwe, these guys are trying their best for mobile Internet. Even Powertel’s CDMA (powerconnect) doesn’t work in Westgate and Sunridge area. But kudos. Liked your review which was fair. Can u also check what happened to Broadlands and progress on Telecel 3G.

  4. Hello,

    With regards to Ubuntu did you try using “windows wireless drivers” (Its software that you should be able to get from the main repository). I haven’t had a chance to test one of these, so would be interested to know if you can get it working on Ubuntu.

  5. Ok, ok, we have seen the GPRS/EDGE/3G banners on bill boards. Now its 4G…what the hell? I dont think it makes sense when someone preaches about what he doesn’t practice. I am currently using the so called 3G modem ( though I think it’s 0G) and it is not worth the price! Some one has to come with real stuff the market because when there is no competition people sell rotten tomatoes.

  6. Nice review. Could you do something similar for Econet’s 3G offering? I’d love to know how it stacks up against this and I’d be particularly interested to know what sort of speeds (downloading etc…) users are experiencing with 3G

  7. Oh, and you keep mentioning that 3G is still only available on the black market? I went to econet’s main branch asked for a form for 3G, filled it in and submitted it and a week later got my line so…

  8. hey Tapiwa. Sorry for not including the raw results. Wanted to keep it readable for non-tech readers. the balance is hard to maintain sometimes. Will do one and post as update.

  9. Same way it worked with the sim cards on the black market 3 years ago: You’d only get it under certain specific circumstances like going to the Econet head office and making an application. An ideal situation would be where you do not ‘apply’ for 3G. you just enable it by paying.

    Currently if you visit Econet centers around town, the message is, the service is currently suspended.

  10. Econet is doing good for itself and the rest of the nation but where I have a problem with its internet services is that: With 3G we never used to have five network bars but with only 1 bar we could stream and download and everything else. But now, the problem is, though all the bars are present you are high unlikely to be able to even open up a search engine or local website. Are they going to do the same with their 4G service because my dad recently bought the package but we are failing to even connect. It reports RF Off. Reconsider about some of the choices you make when it comes to telecommunication in Zimbabwe. I am not saying it is a bad service because I too am impressed but the delivery of the service at times is what bothers me.

  11. Hie, Kabweza, you said: From your computer to Ecoweb, You’re definitely going to be connected at not less than 100mbps… I doubt this very much. I have never seen this modem but from its size I do not think it can deliver 100Mbps via its wireless interface to the BS. Please correct me if I am wrong…

  12. From your computer to the base station it’s true 4G. That should give you peak data rates of 128 Mbps down and 56 Mbps up. Of course, this being wireless access, other factors come into play: e.g Humidity, material between you & the base station, proximity of the base station etc…

    The physical size of the modem pictured above has little to do with its speed capabilities.

  13. The coverage has significantly improved and now connect in Malborough. However still need to go to second floor office to get a connection at the racecourse.

    The other problem is the failure to connect for no apparent reason.

  14. Tapiwa, you wanted to know the exact speed. The article states that 750MB was downloaded in about 3 hours.
    Here is how to determine the exact speed from that information:
    ( 750MB X 1024Bytes ) / ( 3Hrs X 60min X 60sec ) = 71.11kB/s
    The speed at the time of that download (which was at night time) can be assumed to be about 70 kilo Bytes per second.
    The article also says the speed will degrade to half the speed during the day. So half of 70kB/s is 35kB/s
    Therefore the speed during the day could be assumed to be about 35 kilo Bytes per second.

  15. The next question would be how much does this cost compare to what users pay in other regional countries (RSA, Zambia etc) or in other parts of the world (Holland, USA, Germany etc).

    I know for sure that in Holland, customers pay 45 Euros per month for 25Mb uncapped, unlimited Internet 24/7 plus digital TV plus cable TV plus Belle (telephone), all for the same amount of 45 Euros per month. See this link

    h t t p : / / w w w . u p c . n l

  16. The 25Mb Internet that home user get in Holland is the equivalent of

    3200 kB/s (kiloBytes per second)

    or in other words it is

    3.2 MB/s (MegaBytes per second)

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Here is the illustration:
    25Mb is 25 Mega bits per second. In order to compare apples to apples convert this to kiloBytes per sec (kB/s)

    1Mb = 1 million computer bits = 1024 X 1024
    25Mb/s = 25Mb X 1024 X 1024 = 26214400 bits per second (bps)

    1 Byte = 8 bits

    26214400 bps / 8 = 3276800 Bytes per sec

    1 kiloByte (kB) = 1024 Bytes

    3276800 Bytes per sec / 1024 = 3200 kiloByte per second (kB/s)

    25Mb per second is the same as

    3200 kB/s (kiloBytes per second)

    or in other words it’s

    3.2 MB/s (MegaBytes per second)

  17. Thanks for the speed info. As for Brighton, he should know that the 3200kbs will translate to 320kbs when downloading something. Why?…dial up= 56kbps but you see 5kbps when downloading. On speedtest.net I get 120kbps with my econet modem = 12kbsps when downlaoding stuff.

  18. Tapiwa, you are absolutely right. I do not have econect modem so I assume the numbers that you gave are true.

    The theoretical figures I gave above are based on the article and based on what UPC has published on its website.

    The download and upload speed are not always exactly like they are advertised. I know that it depends on a number of factors i.e. the speed of the server where the download is coming from or where upload is going also counts. It also depends on the number of concurrent users at that given moment.

  19. The numbers that I have calculated above are theoretical. I calculated them based on the article and based on what UPC has published on its website.

    The download and upload speed are not always exactly like they are advertised. I know that it depends on a number of factors i.e. the speed of the server where the download is coming from or the speed of the server where the upload is going. It also depends on the number of concurrent users at that given moment.

  20. Just got this less than 24hrs ago, thanks to this blog.
    I am more than thrilled..after having Yo Africa and Zol telling me that there was not Wimax or UHF signal at my house (Borrowdale and Helensvale), I had given up on having a good connection at home. I had resolved instead to daily trips to Brooke Hotspot.

    Praise be to God, I now have broadband at home Yippiee

  21. Hello, if possible, on a nice day, please connect 2 computers using 2 separate modems one on each. Configure one computer as an FTP Server and share say a 1GB movie. On the other computer, install a network monitoring software like PRTG to record the network speed. Download the movie from your “FTP Server” using the other computer. By this you will be testing the speed within Zimbabwe and within the 4G Network and it should be an average of say 90Mbps. Please let me know the lowest, highest and average speed you will get, also tell me the exact file size and the time it takes. Please do not use any download accelerators like DAP and Flash Get or utilities like FileZilla, stick to the command prompt…

  22. What you are looking for to connect to these devices in Linux is wvdial. I can already connect to the internet using telone’s cdma, powertel’s ev-do and econet 3g modems. You just need the correct configuration and hacks some cases which I am all too familiar with.

    What I am interested in however is how you can use the networks with dynamic dns clients in order to host websites independently using these technologies. Perhaps the techies at the various providers would like answer this.

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