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Business 2.0 focuses on Sprint’s business, the Wall Street Journal on the Intel/Qualcomm fight over future mobile data communications: B2.0 looks into whether mobile WiMax could help Sprint Nextel meet the numbers, like reducing churn and having a lower cost to have next-generation network speeds.
The Journal offers an in-depth look into competing giants Intel and Qualcomm, and how their varying commitments to single-vendor, single-patent-owner technology (Qualcomm) and multi-vendor, multi-patent-holder technology (Intel) have shaped the decisions made by Sprint Nextel and others in investing in the future. Sprint said that they preferred a fourth-generation mobile technology that had an ecosystem, and that leaves Qualcomm out with its Flarion approach. (They may eventually built a community around it though.)
The article cites the “WhyMAX?” white paper written by Qualcomm’s Jeffrey Belk, their head of marketing, and explains that it was part of Qualcomm’s attack on the mobile WiMax marketplace. What they don’t mention for reasons of space, I imagine, is that Belk’s concerns were legitimate, in my analysis: issues like spectrum costs and real-estate availability as well as actual shipping equipment being absent were among his major concerns. Sprint and Clearwire bought the spectrum for quite a lot less than comparable 3G licenses due to timing and at least one bankruptcy that let Sprint Nextel get some licenses at a fire sale. Real-estate and siting isn’t an issue for Sprint, which owns towers and air rights, but it will be for Clearwire. And three major vendors have committed to mobile WiMax equipment—Intel, Samsung, and Motorola—which solves that problem.
Alvarion’s gear selected by Netia: The gear, using the 3.6 to 3.8 GHz extension to their BreezeMax platform—frequencies I haven’t heard of in use for this elsewhere—will cover provide WiMax in 20 cities by the end of August; they acquired a national license for this spectrum.
As noted in earlier posts, Sprint and Clearwire own the best spectrum for mobile WiMax in the US: Having chosen, each of them, to deploy that technology, it’s quite unlikely that any other firm at present has the right combination of licenses to challenge them in other bands on a national scale. What is possible is that smaller licensed parties that are highly regional could leverage the equipment choices of Sprint and Clearwire that will turn WiMax into a much more highly commodified technology—coupled with Intel’s commitment to package WiMax adapters in future laptops—to deploy small networks.
I don’t know about smaller licenseholders in 2.5 GHz as a class, but there are enough licenses in bits and pieces that it’s possible a rural area might have a provider that opts for mobile WiMax in licensed 2.5 GHz as an alternative to broadband wireless (using current fixed WiMax technology). This is partly because there’s no certification profile yet and may never be a profile for using fixed WiMax in unlicensed spectrum, although there’s some interest in the 5.8 GHz band.
If 2.5 GHz mobile WiMax gear becomes cheap enough, then a small town without competitive Clearwire or Sprint service could find itself with a mobile WiMax provider, but the economics have to be awfully solid. Many of the arguments against Wi-Fi and broadband wireless stem from unlicensed spectrum. But the flaw with licensed spectrum is paying to buy or lease that license. The small town’s FCC licenses for 2.5 GHz might still be too expensive to purchase for a smaller firm even if larger companies aren’t offering service. Or a small firm might roll out service, only to see Clearwire or Sprint activate a network using licenses they hadn’t built out for yet.
It deserves to be emphasized that there are over 300m people in the US: Sprint Nextel claims 100m people will be served by its licensed “4G” service, while Clearwire says that they could reach 90m people. Sprint has more urban licenses; Clearwire, rural and minor markets. There is overlap between them. Thus, the idea that mobile WiMax with this set of licenses will replace 3G is obviously ludicrous.
This gives Verizon somewhat of a leg up in that while they might lag with their next-generation network plans behind a faster rollout by Clearwire and Sprint, and while Sprint will be able to offer multimode 3G/4G devices, Verizon can put all of its effort behind its recently announced commitment to IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). Cingular, likewise, while having its star hitched to HSDPA (high-speed download packet access), and lagging a bit behind Verizon and Sprint’s 3G footprint, has committed to IMS as part of its evolution. (EVDO and HSDPA aren’t incompatible with IMS; IMS covers the architecture of a network and how data is handled rather than the physical layer. There are some pieces that reach up and down layers, but it’s not odd for CDMA and GSM carriers to both commit to IMS.)
IMS will require an entire revamping of the cellular network to allow an all-IP system, but it could reap huge rewards. More spectrum is needed to take full advantage, but it doesn’t require operating multiple systems—where Sprint has now committed to running and upgrading 3G on the one hand and mobile WiMax on the other. Sprint is planning to roll out EVDO Rev. A by year’s end, and there’s a roadmap for EVDO Rev. B with even faster speeds from Qualcomm. Will Sprint leave the 200m people they can’t serve (with current licenses and plans) with mobile WiMax sitting at Rev. A speeds if Verizon bumps to Rev. B coupled with IMS?
This makes me think that Sprint has spectrum plans up its sleeves. They can’t easily get 2.1 GHz or 2.3 GHz spectrum—BellSouth owns a chunk of 2.3 GHz and little pieces of 2.5 GHz, so those will ultimately be able to be entirely in Cingular’s hands after the AT&T merger with BellSouth completes, and AT&T owns 100% of Cingular and 100% of those licenses.
Sprint Nextel confirms in news conference today they’ll be going with mobile WiMax: This decision has massive repercussions across several multi-billion dollar industries, including chipmaking, adapter manufacturer, consumer mobile, business mobile, and fixed broadband. Sprint had been evaluating several competing technologies while rolling out 3G EVDO service aggressively—first behind Verizon and then catching up.
Sprint and Nextel merged their 2.5 GHz license portfolio, which was one of a few key reasons for their merger, and in the news conference today, they said they could reach 85 percent of the population across 200 major markets in the US with those licenses—about 100m people. They’ll roll out service starting in late 2007, and moving into full deployment in 2008. They’re dubbing this 4G broadband.
What’s interesting about their decision is that they chose mobile WiMax (really 802.16-2005, which includes fixed service, too) not because it was the perfect technology and others failed to live up to promises, but rather because it’s available for development now, it’s already deployed in a similar form in South Korea and is in wide trials, and because there are many vendors already standing behind it. (To learn more about mobile WiMax, listen to this podcast I recorded with WiMax expert and consultant to the WiMax Forum, Monica Paolini.)
Intel, Samsung, and Motorola will work together to provide the equipment and expertise to build out the national network and the chipsets that will drive devices. Further, Samsung and Motorola will build multimode devices for Sprint that will allow switching between 3G (EVDO) and 4G (Mobile WiMax) networks.
Clearwire, which has licenses that allow them to pass about 90m people in the US, will now face strong competition on timetable and devices. Clearwire’s licenses tend to cover smaller markets, which are often underserved with broadband of all kinds. The sale of NextNet to Motorola will now allow Motorola to manufacture gear for Sprint, which seemed to be one of the reasons for NextNet to be sold off—it put money in Clearwire’s pocket while allowing the division to be independent of them.
Intel will also be in the position of providing most recently $600m to Clearwire and yet be a key supplier of equipment know-how to a key competitor. On the other hand, Intel’s goal has been to develop the market, and the more competition potentially the more likelihood of adoption and the more chips sold. Samsung has already been selling a variant on mobile WiMax, called WiBro, in South Korea, and there’s a lot of ongoing work to align WiBro and mobile WiMax into a single technology profile.
Today’s announcement vindicates a multi-year effort on Intel’s part to promote mobile WiMax as an evolutionary next step to cellular networks with Qualcomm as their key rival in this matter. This doesn’t edge Qualcomm out entirely, as I could see handheld and laptops having Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G built in for the various purposes that each technology is best. Coverage will remain an issue with 4G, where 3G could eventually cover 95% of the US population and 4G may be limited in some areas or have a single provider across large territories, especially in less populated areas.
In today’s news conference, Barry West, the president of their new 4G Mobile Broadband division, and CTO for Sprint Nextel, said quite bluntly that they liked Qualcomm’s Flarion technology and IP Wireless’s approach just fine, but both had problems with immediate rollouts. They tried other cell standards, too.
Flarion supports only FDD (frequency division duplexing) at present and they don’t like the current maximum band limit, which I couldn’t hear clearly on the call, but I believe is 1.25 MHz in some combinations or 5 MHz. This conforms to CDMA2000 1x divisions and they work within existing cell banding. West said he was sure Qualcomm could meet their needs, but they weren’t there right now. (West said he prefer TDD (time division duplexing) with their bands, which means allocating space for uplink or downlink as needed using timing instructions rather than allocating frequencies on a fixed basis, regardless of traffic, for up- and downlink.)
IPWireless tested out fine for Sprint, but they had no “ecosystem,” a word used many times in the call. HSDPA (high-speed packet download access) was interesting, but a big switch for them being a GSM evolution. And 3G LTE (long-term evolution) is truly a long-term technology, with West estimating a time to market of 2010 to 2012. LTE (also called Super 3G) could achieve 100 Mbps downstream and extremely low latency.
Mobile WiMax becomes the best choice, in West’s evaluation, because they can start working today to build a network by year’s end with a high degree of reliance that equipment will be ready and it will work as expected. The Intel, Samsung, and Motorola partnerships provide them enough diversity in this first rollout to switch trains if one company falls behind in one area.
Sprint will invest $1b in 2007 and $1.5b to $2b in 2008 on this network.