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« Freescale, Wavesat Partner for WiMax Gateway Platform | Main | About Sprint and Clearwire's 4G Coverage »

August 8, 2006

Sprint Nextel Picks Mobile WiMax over Flarion, IP Wireless, HSDPA, Others

By Glenn Fleishman

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.

Posted by Glennf at August 8, 2006 11:24 AM

Categories: 2.5 GHz, 802.16-2005 (16e), Mobile WiMax, launch plans


Sprint says that Flarion and IP Wireless, "had problems with immediate rollouts." That sound like carny for, "Moto, Intel and Samsung were willing to subsidize our network and they weren't."

Obviously this is going to be a huge money loser initially. The question is whether this will remain a huge money loser forever. I am not educated enough on the 2.5 GHz band to pass judgment, but the fact that they have a hard enough time making money in the 1.9 GHz band with wireless data makes me very skeptical.

Posted by: Rusty at August 9, 2006 12:03 PM

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