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Seemingly very on-target profile of Clearwire head Craig McCaw, the founder or inspiration for much of what the cell industry is doing today: Even though the best-known, but not only well-known McCaw is a local, I forget how many pies he’s had fingers in. This Wall Street Journal article has a nice box that explains how he either started or was involved in every major cell operator in the U.S. except Verizon.
Which is why Clearwire can raise billions, despite his failed satellite phone effort, and why he’s moving forward at a crazy rate. It’s also why he was able to negotiate the $300m deal with AT&T to grab a huge hunk of the BellSouth spectrum holdings they were obliged (through his constant lobbying) to spin off as part of the merger.
I tested Clearwire’s pre-WiMax PC Card offering this week, and was rather pleasantly surprised at its consistent performance and high throughput.
The Wall Street Journal reports the deal for a joint mobile WiMax network is off between Sprint Nextel, Clearwire: That doesn’t mean either company is abandoning plans, nor that the two won’t forge a new deal. But with the departure of Sprint’s head due to a lack of confidence in his initiatives, it’s hard to see how an interim CEO could sign off on something that might last for years or even decades.
The deal between the two firms was for them to use complementary spectrum holdings and carry out spectrum swaps to create nonoverlapping network buildouts that would cover the whole country. Sprint would also allow Clearwire to resell its 3G EVDO network, a critical stage in building a roaming business audience. The complementary buildout would prevent double building, and provide the full set of frequencies in each market needed to ensure the highest data rates.
The Journal reports that some of Clearwire’s partners—Intel, Motorola, and Samsung—might “try to inject financing into Clearwire” to keep the WiMax network buildout on track. Intel and Motorola previously put in hundreds of millions.
This isn’t a critique specifically of this New York Times reporter, but it’s a good example of how WiMax isn’t understood or explained correctly: WiMax has a set of distinct advantages—advantages that have yet to be proven in the market and in physical reality—that are generally poorly explained by those outside the industry. This was true in Wi-Fi’s early days, when its attributes and abilities were often distorted through a combination of company hype and lack of technical knowledge on the part of reporters. As Wi-Fi hit mainstream, and reporters became familiar with its limits through hands-on use and a greater body of more understandable knowledge, reporting became more accurate, too.
In this Times article, Victoria Shannon repeats a few misconceptions that were spread early on.
“WiMax, a wireless technology that allows Internet and other data connections across much broader areas than Wi-Fi…” Not true. WiMax is a more flexible way to cover the same area, potentially at lower cost relative to bandwidth, and at much greater reliability. Wi-Fi can, in fact, cover any given area, but finding the right places to mount receivers, which must necessarily be of much greater number because of the lower power limits, is quite hard.
The ITU endorsement this article covers—802.16 being added to the IMT-2000 family of 3G standards—“opens the way for many of the union’s member countries to devote a part of the public radio spectrum to WiMax,” she writes. Not quite. It opens the way for the member countries to use existing 3G spectrum for WiMax. Before this, WiMax wouldn’t have been allowed in pure 3G allocations. New spectrum can be allotted, too, of course.
“Unlike Wi-Fi, this mobile Internet technology can hand off a signal from antenna to antenna, thus allowing a device to hold a connection while in motion.” Those are two different issues. Wi-Fi can also hand off signals among base stations (not antennas, though I see why that term is used here), but it’s not designed for mobility. There’s been a lot of work in that regard to allow people talking on handsets while walking around in a company setting to not have a pause or drop the call. But that’s a far cry from the WiMax’s design, which is supposed to handle automotive connections.
“WiMax potentially can move data at 70 megabits a second across 65 kilometers, or 40 miles. Current fixed-line broadband connections have speeds of about 2 megabits a second.” A strange set of comparisons. To work at 70 Mbps, WiMax would need to use an extremely large spectrum hunk, and it’s unlikely that any provider would deploy in that fashion. It’s a design maximum, not how it will be deployed. The distance and speed are interrelated properties: You can not obtain 70 Mbps at 40 miles from a base station. The other part of this odd comparison, is that wireline broadband can achieve 50 Mbps or faster in the same theoretical, not-yet-deployed world in which WiMax is being discussed. There are cable standards in the field and DSL that’s not far off that can reach those rates. A more typical current range of rates is 3 Mbps to 8 Mbps for DSL and cable.
What’s interested about WiMax, that’s never mentioned in mainstream business reporting, is that it’s used typically in exclusively licensed spectrum for highly coordinated purposes. Wi-Fi is a free-for-all; WiMax is a pretty ballet. WiMax allows extraordinarily granular provisioning of the data among customers akin to how cell networks work; future cell networks will work much more like WiMax, too.
So it’s the flexibility, provisioning, and mobility that makes mobile WiMax a technology that many providers are planning to roll out or considering. It can be used at very high speeds, if you have the spectrum, over fairly decent areas; it can be used at lower speeds at great distances, reducing infrastructure costs to go a long way in one direction; it can be provisioned on the fly to deliver specific amounts of bandwidth to specific customers; and it works in moving vehicles as well.
BusinessWeek offers an exhaustive and interesting rundown on WiMax’s origins and potential: Intel drove the WiMax ship starting when it learned the real per-home cost of fiber-optic installation from the telcos. They ran screaming, apparently, right into wireless options that might not provide the same raw speed, but would be effective alternatives to the super-expensive FTTH (fiber to the home) strategy that BusinessWeek says Intel was considering partially bankrolling.
WiMax arose out of a lot of competing industry ideas and a niche core of existing vendors. Those vendors are still thriving, by the way, even as Intel pulled out all the stops. The article doesn’t deal with the major evolution of WiMax moving from 802.16-2004 (the rollup of everything up to fixed 802.11d networking) to 802.16-2005, which added 802.16e, has been labeled mobile WiMax and changed the rules of the game.
Fixed WiMax was a T-1 and better replacement with some advantages and disadvantages. (In the U.S., the big problem is having the right band to use it.) Mobile WiMax, which technically encompasses fixed, nomadic, and mobile uses, could transform the wireless industry for voice and data, and challenge incumbents wireline firms to compete on WiMax’s terms or to do better, forcing out faster speeds and lower prices to stay firmly in the game.
The writer points out pretty clearly the challenges, expenses, and unknown factors involved in WiMax from massively backed to massively deployed, but also notes how quickly WiMax has become a standard of worldwide interest, with early deployments and tests rolling out in many countries—in some cases, covering parts of countries.
A reporter in Intel’s backyard in Oregon writes superb account of WiMax’s state of deployment, potential: Mike Rogoway does a great job outlining the scope of WiMax’s potential, focusing on Intel’s bet on mobile WiMax. While much of the article covers familiar ground in accurate, interesting detail, there’s one fact I hadn’t heard before: Intel plans to have 4,000 of its 16,000 Oregon employees test mobile WiMax at home later in 2007 to get on the ground experience. Oregon has a difficult topology and verges rapidly in pure rural outside of Portland metro and its suburbs. It’s a good place to work out the kinks.
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.
Reuters reports that Intel is claiming it will have WiMax cards for laptops in 2006: The story, as usual, confuses fixed and mobile WiMax, reporting that “Wi-Max is seen by many in the field as a successor to Wi-Fi,” which isn’t what many people in the industry really think. Fixed WiMax is a fixed wireline replacement. Mobile WiMax is a threat to 3G cellular. Neither really overlaps the primary use of Wi-Fi, which remains indoor uses in which dense deployments (many homes, many apartments, campus-wide business service) remain the norm.
The article also notes that “Wi-Max has a much longer range, varying from a couple of miles in an urban area to 10 miles or more in open country.” Sure: for specific fixed WiMax installations. Mobile WiMax won’t have that kind of range because physics won’t allow distance, performance, and nomadic or mobile uses without extremely high signal strengths.
What Intel is talking about is mobile WiMax which is quite far from actual deployment, thus it’s strange that the company is gung-ho about embedding mobile WiMax receivers in laptops. In the US, especially, even basic issues of which frequencies would be used are still up in the air. There’s no certified standard and it’s likely months off or longer. The similar WiBro technology in South Korea may have a handhold there, already, but that’s a far cry from deployments worldwide that would require pre-installed cards.
There’s a big missing piece in this story, and I’m eager to hear more.
Superb Wired News article addresses the present and future of WiMax: Joanna Glasner expertly distinguishes the kinds of WiMax coming to market in a way that mainstream business reporters have proved incapable while she still keeps the technology comprehensible to a broad audience. The article has some very reasonable quotes from cell phone technology inventor Marty Cooper, who has made broader statements in the past about Wi-Fi and WiMax.
Glasner notes one of the biggest current drawbacks to fixed WiMax, which is that most of the companies who are early out of the gate are startups, and thus have little track record (although often great executive and engineering pedigrees), and have new, unproven equipment.
Now, I’ve asked a question of every startup that’s tried to explain to me over the last few years how carriers will buy their equipment: Tell me why carriers will purchase something from you when they typically require multiple bidders with interoperable devices? I get hemming and hawing and descriptions of potential deals, and then those companies disappear or change market segments.
Mainstream but in-depth article on WiMax in BusinessWeek: The writer looks at WiMax from several angles, talking primarily about its threat to cellular operators and their strategies for taking out mobile WiMax before it hits the streets. It’s an excellent article and well worth reading to get a view of the competitive and business landscape.
The writer conflates fixed and mobile WiMax a bit in the beginning: a fixed WiMax transceiver can’t create a hotspot dozens of miles long, and mobile WiMax won’t have that kind of range. Rather, mobile WiMax will create quite large and fast cells that will compete with cellular operators and Wi-Fi hotspots and fixed WiMax will very soon be an effective alternative for even long-range final mile broadband just as its precursors have been since the mid-1990s.
The article also seems optimistic about Intel’s mobile WiMax chip for laptops, suggesting that Intel will have them in Dell laptops next year even with the standard and certification not due until 2006 or 2007. My opinion from the folks I’ve talked to is that mobile WiMax won’t be fullblown until at least 2007, possibly later, at which point cell operators will have had years to develop services that will more directly compete, and Wi-Fi will be well into its 802.11n stage for greater throughput and distance.
Intel is deploying WiMax in some Katrina-hit areas: The FCC has granted waivers to allow 3.5 GHz use, which means Intel can provide WiMax-ready equipment for use. This AP story doesn’t mention the actual vendor involved; it may be in-house Intel reference designs.
These stories are beginning to become hardly worth linking to: Intel really does a disservice to the market by speaking in such broad terms to the mainstream media, which may not have a thorough grasp of the broadband market. Here, Intel’s Sean Maloney says that real deployments of mobile WiMax won’t start this year. As if that were even a possibility, given that the standard itself isn’t even complete yet. He also says that “most of the world” will get broadband via WiMax. That’s quite a prediction.
Perhaps the most outrageous bit in this article, which isn’t attributed directly to Maloney, is that mobile operators see WiMax as an alternative wireless network to relieve their 3G networks from heavy data use. That is stated like a fact, which it most certainly isn’t. To begin with, 3G networks are hardly even built, let alone full. Also, in some countries like in most of Europe, operators aren’t even allowed to deploy WiMax in their current 3G spectrum because of regulations. Not to mention the fact that WiMax equipment isn’t being built in the 3G frequencies.
The European operators could use different frequencies to build WiMax networks and link those to their 3G networks. However, if they were interested in that they wouldn’t be fighting tooth and nail to prohibit the deployment of WiMax networks in the 2.5 GHz spectrum which is to be opened in Europe in a few years. They are using the bulk of their lobbying might to keep that frequency dedicated solely to 3G technologies.
In a very theoretical sense it’s true that there is the potential in the future to harmonize 3G and WiMax. But that’s so far out that it requires a lot of background to even suggest it. The mobile world has largely settled on OFDM, the air interface that WiMax is based on, for the future mobile platform. But it’s not at all clear if WiMax or a future version of it will fill the needs of the mobile operators. A wholly new standard based on OFDM might instead serve the mobile operators. And while regulations currently prohibit operators in Europe from deploying WiMax in their 3G spectrum, there is a liberalization movement happening that could make it easier for operators to use any technology in any band. But that remains to be seen and regulatory changes are notoriously slow.
Terrific article on the local impact of pre-WiMax in Minneapolis: The Star-Tribune scores on the technical side with this excellent mainstream business analysis of WiMax. The writer even beats most of the folks in the trade publications by perfectly describing the status of WiMax. The element that’s not fully developed is that fixed WiMax can’t compete against clouds of Wi-Fi and that Wi-Fi can be used for long-distance links, too. But pre-WiMax and related technology is designed for point-to-multipoint while Wi-Fi has to be coerced into it.
In the Minneapolis area, local companies StoneBridge and Implex.net are using broadband wireless to compete with local carriers: the former has 650 customers; the latter says several hundred.
Interestingly, no prices are quoted for higher-than-T-1 speeds. Broadband wireless often can’t compete for business-class 1.5 Mbps service, but as soon as you rise above that level, it’s much cheaper. To install two T-1 lines generally costs twice as much in equipment and for monthly fees. But switching from 1.5 to 3 Mbps using wireless is typically more like a 50 percent increase and doesn’t change out the equipment. Even better, you can often make that switch through a phone call—not by bringing in more wire and equipment.
Investor’s Business Daily says that WiMax’s delays has changed the marketplace for gear: It’s hammered the stock of companies poised to be early entrants, and that are now selling so-called pre-WiMax gear that uses standards and technology similar to what will be certified in July. While the delay of a year from the original timetable to get WiMax certification finished hasn’t dimmed interest in products based on the technology, it means that Alvarion and Airspan among others face a much larger competitive landscape when gear finally ships.
The article manages to perpetuate two common errors, unfortunately. First, it fails to distinguish between the IEEE’s standards work that resulted in 802.16-2004 (encompassing everything but 802.16e, the mobile WiMax flavor) and WiMax certification. The IEEE doesn’t certify, and the article draws an analogy with Wi-Fi that has the same flaw. But the writer rightly notes that certification is yet to come.
The second error is that the initial WiMax products will compete with Wi-Fi. That’s still probably two years away. Initial WiMax equipment will walk and talk like existing pre-WiMax gear: it’s meant for excellent fixed point-to-multipoint coverage using customer premises equipment or CPEs.
Carriers aren’t discouraged by the delays. If anything, this article implies that they’re doing more testing with equipment from more vendors given that they have had more time to figure out their ultimate plan.
Whenever a new technology starts to hit the mainstream, some press outlets may have a hard time grasping it: That seems to be the problem in this UPI article, which among other odd statements notes that WiMax helps customers roam from one wireless network to another, apparently a key factor in delivering 3G networks. Somehow the reporter has also concluded that there are security concerns with WiMax that would allow hackers to access these “free” networks and “wreak havoc on mobile phone calling.” This is probably the most far off-base article I’ve seen about WiMax.
We all get it wrong sometimes, but it seems that a wee bit more research was really necessary before this reporter should have published this story.
In the spirit of disclosing roots of information, for those of you who aren’t aware of it, UPI is owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who claims to have seen Jesus and then founded a church. He also owns The Washington Times.