Is Apple sabotaging 4G MiFi on the iPad?

A recent series of tests reveal the iPad performs slower on 4G hotspots than other devices. What's going on here?

As the iPad owning world salivates for the release of iOS 4.2, bringing all manner of goodies that Apple added to the iPhone and iPod touch in June, a report may indicate an iPad-version of the antenna-gate scandal.

According to a recent report, the iPad's network throughput is lower than other devices when connected to a 4G MiFi device. That might not be all that interesting in and of itself. After all different wireless devices can deliver different throughput for any number of reasons including firmware and software variations as well as radio antennas from different manufacturers. What makes this worth noting is the iPad performed at or near other Wi-Fi devices when connected to a wired hotspot.

The test in question relied on samples using Clearwire's iSpot (a 4G MiFi-style device designed and marketed specifically to Wi-Fi iPad customers are an alternative to purchasing an iPad 3G and pre-paid service from AT&T), Clearwire's similar Clear Spot product, Sprint's 4G Overdrive MiFi device, and an HTC Evo acting as a wireless base station. The results were pretty consistent across all the devices compared to a Windows laptop. Generally the iPad delivered half the throughput of the laptop when connected to a 4G network (or what is billed as a 4G network in spite of the ITU's )

Making the results even more puzzling is the fact that similar results weren't noted when to 3G service using two of the same devices (the Sprint Overdrive and Evo). There performance was generally similar between the iPad and the laptop. And when connected to a traditional Wi-Fi network attached to Verizon's FiOS, the results appear to be dead on between the devices.

Exactly what would cause such a drastic difference with 4G is a bit of a mystery. It could have something to with power saving technologies in both the 4G device and the iPad or even the use of wireless spectrum by the varying devices, although that seems somewhat unlikely. Without comparative tests with 4G services other than WiMax, which is predominantly only used by Clearwire and Sprint, one can't rule out that this may be a WiMax-only issue.

What this means for consumers is also a bit murky. Clearly, the issue is a concern, but it may not be widespread beyond WiMax. And even with slower throughput, the tests showed that using a 4G device did provide more than double the average bandwidth available with 3G – meaning that the devices are an improvement and are likely still worth the investment.

It also doesn't indicate that the problem is likely to affect any 3G MiFi solutions. That's good news for users picking up a iPad from a Verizon store paired with a Verizon MiFi card (sales at Verizon stores began a week before this issue was reported) or pairing an iPad with any other 3G MiFi device. And, as I mentioned recently, there remain other advantages to using a MiFi solution rather than opting for an iPad 3G model (particularly the ability to support multiple Wi-Fi devices).

While it's possible to speculate that this is the result of a planned effort on Apple's part to boost sales of the iPad 3G and contracts with AT&T in the U.S. (and other carriers internationally) or even to boost sales paired with a Verizon contract, I'm willing to bet that there isn't such a conspiratorial angle to all this. After all, Apple has carrier partners for the iPad all over the world and it's to the company's advantage to provide the broadest range of options to customers.

Hopefully, the issue is something in the firmware or networking software of the iPad that can be fixed in an update. For all we know, Apple may be aware of the issue and have patched it in iOS 4.2. If that's the case, we shouldn't have long to wait to find out.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies