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In a major move, Clearwire and Sprint Nextel will allow roaming across mobile WiMax networks; also Clearwire to Sprint’s 3G network: This is a massive development, ensuring the potential financial viability of mobile WiMax as an alternative to cell data and perhaps to slower flavors of wired broadband. It’s not guaranteed in any way that the market will wind up profitable nor that mobile WiMax will work as these firms expect when deployed widely in the field. But without this move, there would have been many more hurdles to cross.
The two firms will apparently swap licenses in markets where they overlap, and build an entirely nonoverlapping network with about 180m people covered by Sprint and 120m by Clearwire. This is akin to how early U.S. GSM providers agreed to build parts of their network to jumpstart GSM coverage.
While mobile WiMax roaming between the two firms was always a possibility, the fact that Sprint Nextel will allow Clearwire customers to roam onto their 3G EVDO network was a surprise to me. That means that Clearwire had enough to offer Sprint that they were willing to take this extraordinary move. The Wall Street Journal suggests that Sprint investors, nervous about the scale of investment in this untested technology, will have fears allayed by a deal that will rise all boats while giving Sprint national coverage for the network.
This is the most positive development for the future of mobile WiMax, and for a viable additional pipe to the home and mobile workers. It may also let some of the air out of city-wide Wi-Fi.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Sprint Nextel and Clearwire may agree to allow roaming by their customers across each other’s network: This could dramatically improve the chances for mobile WiMax to take off, as it would ensure that each firm’s customers didn’t hit huge service holes in areas in which their provider lacked licenses.
Sprint clearly retains a strong lead in the total amount of spectrum held—at one time, valued at 85 percent of the available licenses—while Clearwire has done a good job in extending its geographic reach. The Journal says the two firms might create a joint venture to pool assets, or might swap spectrum holdings in some markets.
Clearwire has only one technology in its arsenal. Sprint said at its 4G network launch that it would offer adapters for mobile users that would support both 3G EVDO and mobile WiMax. That gave them a fallback position for their business traveler market.
Monica Paolini, a WiMax industry analyst and consultant, advises manufacturers, operators to make it easy on customers with multiple devices: Paolini notes that as mobile WiMax picks up, an individual might have service at home, a mobile card, and portable gadgets like MP3 players with WiMax built in. Operators may want to maximize revenue by creating separate accounts and fees for each device. Paolini recommends setting policies that don’t discourage customers from adding devices, but also don’t allow abuse of accounts.
Manufacturers should make it trivial to add account information to a mobile device to add it to an existing WiMax account, too. While that might sound somewhat obvious, it’s not part of the ecosystem now. Devices use SIMs or other modules to authenticate to the network and establish separate billing identities in the system. That won’t be the case with WiMax.