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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.
Wall Street Journal spells out that Sprint Nextel has put many options on the table for WiMax rollout, but canceling it appears unlikely: The takeaway here is that Sprint might merge with Clearwire through a spinoff that would form a separate public company, look for specific investment in the WiMax unit, purchase Clearwire—or just sign the darned contract with Clearwire for building a complementary network footprint. Sprint is trying to get its act together in preparation of the entrance of a new permanent CEO; they don’t want to stand still while they engage in a search.
As might be recalled, a good hunk of the 2.5 GHz that Clearwire and Sprint Nextel “own” is sublet from academic and other institutions which originally received allocations for distance learning, among other purposes: Ah for the days when sweet, prime spectrum was given away without a purpose being set in stone. Congress allowed the institutions that were granted these licenses to sell them as a sort of non-auction backdoor that’s resulted in the holdings primarily in the hands of Sprint Nextel and Clearwire today.
Many institutions apparently forgot they had the spectrum, and has the value has become known have filed renewal notices, both on time and late. Apparently, some lapsed licenses if renewed would impinge on other coverage areas, which doesn’t exactly make sense to me since 2.5 GHz licenses were assigned on a frequency and geographically divided basis. There must have been some multiple licenses in the same areas who were supposed to work out conflicts.
Clearwire, which has more of these licenses, Marketwatch reports, wants the expired licenses renewed, because, they say, that would speed the way to getting that spectrum in use. Sprint not so much, as they apparently think they have an advantage in their spectrum portfolio. Clearwire and Sprint will build out a network jointly, if the government approves, but I imagine revenue splits and roaming may be based on coverage areas. The less Clearwire has, the more Sprint can sell to what would have been Clearwire customers.
This article also notes that a lawsuit against the Peralta Community College District was settled with Peralta receiving more fees than originally agreed to. Peralta had alleged a side agreement with Clearwire that would have provided more than the main agreement promised. The suit was filed in mid-2006. The license was their only viable San Francisco Bay Area spectrum at the time.
Ars Technica has a brief but excellent comparison of mobile Wimax and Wi-Fi for citywide deployment: Wi-Fi has problems of interference, signal reach, and bandwidth; mobile WiMax should deliver through coordinated use of licensed spectrum quite high download rates with low latency and high quality. Interference isn’t entirely eliminated, but it’s within the control of the operator, not a situation for contention (joke intended) among unrelated parties.
The lack of WiMax adapters should be troubling, given that Sprint won’t subsidize the hardware, but Intel’s chief said a $30 price point is the goal, as well as $30 per month service.
What Ars doesn’t note is that WiMax costs a lot more to build out than Wi-Fi. Add in the friction of getting all users to purchase cards or dongles until the Intel machine is geared up to include as a standard laptop feature, and that slows things down a bit.
Further, Wi-Fi doesn’t require coordination with other parties to use the spectrum; you can certainly collide, however, on issues of interference and overuse of spectrum. It’s neat that Sprint and Clearwire have committed so much money to building their network out nationwide, but anyone can set up a Wi-Fi network wherever and to whatever extent they want. So where Ars paints WiMax as a clear and potentially successful alternative to Wi-Fi, the news site omits the monopoly situation. There will likely be a single WiMax entity, the shared network that Sprint and Clearwire will build.
They’ll be in competition against wireline services, sure, but a city can’t build a WiMax network, nor can most small providers. (There are some licenses held in small markets that could work for that, but they’re pretty thin now.)
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.
At a trade show, major telecom operators said WiMax’s can’t compete in their world with DSL and cable: Costs will drop to the range they need to deploy, and they aren’t claiming that niche uses are unprofitable or pointless. This confirms what some WiMax vendors have been saying: that operators want the whole certification picture sorted out, volume production, and real-world trials of final silicon. And then they’ll sit on that for a while. The operators also cited limitations in licensed spectrum in the U.S. as a hindrance to deployment.
WiMax isn’t likely to overtake 3G: This seems to be the consensus these days, as it becomes clear that we’ve still got a few years before mobile WiMax and during those few years 3G will continue to progress. The interesting inflection point will come at some time in the future when all the networks morph into OFDM-based technologies.
On the heels of a big win in Finland, Flarion said it also won contracts for networks in Croatia and Malaysia: An operator will build a network in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. The Malaysia network will target rural areas. Last week Flarion also announced that it will supply a network for an operator in Virginia.
On the flip side, Nextel said it is finally officially ceasing to support users on its Flarion network in North Carolina. This is sad news for loyal users of the network.
An Ovum analyst has an interesting look at the business case for WiMax: He suggests that a market needs fairly high density and little competition for WiMax to successfully serve as a DSL replacement. Other factors can make WiMax a potential competitor to DSL, but basically going head-to-head with DSL in many situations won’t work.
It seems to me that many broadband wireless operators must already believe this. In the U.S., some of the more well-known operators such as NextWeb and Towerstream are targeting business customers, which is a market with room for differentiation on price and services. Clearwire is targeting smaller markets without tons of competition.
One of his findings is surprising to me. He says that looking at Unwired in Australia and Clearwire in the U.S., operators are finding that customers aren’t willing to pay a premium for the luxury of portability. This surprises me, if only because personally I would. Also, it seemed that some historical wireless success stories, like Nextel’s Flarion network and Ricochet, were due to the fact that users loved the portability factor.
UPDATE: The Yankee Group’s Lindsay Schroth wrote to say that she too thinks that users will pay a premium for portability. The folks at Unwired Australia have told her that portability is an important element of their strategy and they credit it for some of their recent success.
TowerStream figures that the Supreme Court decision that cable companies don’t have to open their networks is good news for wireless broadband: This is obviously self-serving but it also has some truth to it. TowerStream figures that ISPs will look for alternatives to cable, such as wireless broadband, for delivering services. If the WiMax standard does ultimately lead to low-priced network equipment, startup ISPs could be in a position to build networks and grow them as they attract customers. But just like working with incumbents to share lines has a host of issues, so does building a wireless network, with the main issue being availability of spectrum.
Cisco’s CTO says there’s no need for broadband wireless: He says that 98 percent of the population of the developed world is going to be highly wired. I’d have to argue with that, given the current state of wired broadband availability in some of the less populous areas of the United States. Or, to give a more specific example, Ireland is a developed country yet only 3 percent of the population here has broadband, and that’s largely because the incumbent telco has ancient plant and just doesn’t care to upgrade or comply with unbundling regulations. That makes a place like Ireland ideal for competitors to use technologies like WiMax to serve the population. Also, plenty of leaders in the WiMax segment are saying that some of the biggest potential for WiMax is in the developing world, where the wired infrastructure doesn’t exist and wireless offers a less expensive way to build networks. So while I have to agree that WiMax is over-hyped and won’t revolutionize the universe, I think that Cisco is underestimating and perhaps misunderstanding the opportunity. [Link via Wispcentric]
A couple of days ago IPWireless announced a win in the Czech Republic and now it’s Flarion’s time in the sun: The winner of the 450 MHz license in Finland will use Flarion’s gear to build a nationwide network. The regulator requires the operator to lease the network to any interested service provider. A Flarion spokesman said that the network is expected to deliver the same data rates as any Flarion network, which is as much as 1.5 Mbps on the downlink and 300-500 Kbps on the uplink. Usually, the further down the spectrum you go, the harder it is to offer broadband, and 450 MHz is pretty low on the band.
The CDMA camp has also targeted the 450 MHz band and a couple of the applicants for this license would have used CDMA. There are probably a couple of reasons why those companies didn’t win. These days, most people in the wireless world agree that the future is OFDM so there could have been a perception that the CDMA gear would become obsolete sooner. Also, this is Europe where CDMA is generally reviled, so the choice could have had a bit of politics to it.
WiMax, or something like it, isn’t being optimized, as far as I know, for this low-band frequency, although it probably could be. Still, the more wins that the likes of IPWireless and Flarion get in Europe, the more mindshare they win, which makes them potential competitors to 802.16e.
T-Mobile said it is launching a network in the Czech Republic using gear from IPWireless: Customers will be able to use combined EDGE/IPWireless PCMCIA cards for wireless data access. The network is expected to cover Prague by the end of the year, followed by the rest of the country. T-Mobile says that just two percent of the market has broadband access, so if the price is right this could make a good option. The companies say that an average user would get 512 Kbps downlink.
This is a coup for IPWireless for a couple of reasons. T-Mobile is an investor in IPWireless rival Flarion and has tried the Flarion technology in the Netherlands. In many countries (I’m not sure about the Czech Republic), operators are allowed to deploy IPWireless’ technology in the cellular frequencies but they aren’t allowed to deploy Flarion’s technology. But this is also significant because T-Mobile is a major European operator so it lends some legitimacy to IPWireless.
T-Mobile will be using the 1.9 GHz band in Prague but the oddball 872 MHz band outside of the city. Typically, the lower bands have further range but can carry less data.
In other European wireless data network news, Flarion is in a good position to win some business in Finland. Finland is about to distribute some licenses in the 450 MHz band. Flarion has developed equipment for the band and five of the seven spectrum bidders say they’d use Flarion’s gear. The other two say they’d opt for CDMA-based equipment. [link via Wispcentric]
Last year, Wireless Week ran an informative piece about the 450 MHz band in Europe, specifically looking at the potential for CDMA in the band. It’s good background reading for anyone not familiar with what’s happening in the 450 MHz band in Europe.
While many of these announcements involve unusual spectrum bands, generally, the more mobile broadband networks that get launched in the next couple of years, the more competition mobile WiMax will have when it becomes available.
Future cellular technologies are poised to steal some potential market share from WiMax: Many of the GSM cellular operators are moving toward deploying HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) followed by HSUPA, (HS Upload PA) which increases uplink speeds. The initial launches of HSDPA are likely to support around 1 Mbps on the downlink per user, with speeds increasing with future upgrades. Because the cellular operators already have networks in place, they are well-positioned to introduce a ubiquitous or near-ubiquitous network, should they choose.
While the involvement of the traditional cellular vendors in the WiMax world is encouraging for WiMax, these vendors are often unclear about how WiMax and the future cellular technologies are likely to co-exist. “HSDPA is complimentary to WiMax,” said Simon Beresford-Wylie, senior vice president, EMEA for Nokia’s networks division, while speaking at Nokia’s annual journalists event earlier this week.
But it was difficult to see exactly how the two technologies might be complementary. Beresford-Wylie noted that HSDPA will likely offer more in terms of mobility while WiMax ought to offer faster throughputs. He suggested that cellular operators might use WiMax networks to supplement their networks in metropolitan areas. When pushed on the issue, he said that some cellular operators might use WiMax while some new operators might deploy it to compete with the cellular networks.
In some ways, some vendors seem stuck between trying to capitalize on a new market—WiMax—and offending their existing lucrative relationships with the cellular operators.
In other HSDPA news, Nokia said it can publicly describe six public HSDPA contracts and has fifteen others that it can’t discuss. Nokia also briefly described an announcement it made earlier this year about Internet-HSPA (no D or U in the middle)—a network upgrade that would support data only.
Nortel has also been aggressively pursing HSDPA. BB Mobile in Japan said it has conducted live field tests using Nortel HSDPA gear in the unusual 1.7 GHz band. They claim this is the first such example in Japan.
While earlier this week we covered Pacific Internet’s plan to build a WiMax network in Singapore, I didn’t really touch on the bigger picture: In May, Singapore distributed licenses, I believe in the 2.5 GHz band, to six companies. In addition to WiMax trials, operators in Singapore have also tested out networks from Arraycomm and IPWireless. Singapore could serve to be one of the earliest markets to get widespread broadband wireless that could compete with the cellular operators. If the operators choose a variety of technologies, Singapore could become a great experiment to watch how the technologies compare and compete when live in the marketplace. [Link via WISP Centric]
eWeek did a really nice job looking at the negative side of WiMax: It’s worth a read. Kudos to the writer who, despite some mistakes, managed to get a slew of people on the record expressing their doubts about WiMax. That’s a tough accomplishment these days—most of the people in the industry who I talk to are largely WiMax cheerleaders.
Still, I’m not sure I’d characterize the attitude from vendors as “lukewarm commitment.” While it’s true that not all the members of the WiMax Forum have actually produced products, there is definitely a healthy ecosystem of vendors working on products.
This article shows that there is still plenty of confusion in the market about WiMax, primarily on two fronts. One is, I am constantly reading stories that say that WiMax is designed to either work on unlicensed or licensed bands. Here, the article initially notes that WiMax is designed for licensed spectrum, making it contingent on the telecom operators. But later the article mentions unlicensed bands. The fact is, WiMax can be built to work across a wide range of unlicensed and licensed frequencies. The Forum has initially identified three bands for official WiMax gear and those bands include both licensed and unlicensed.
Secondly, I think that the Forum really needs to work at defining where WiMax fits in the market among the cellular networks and other wireless technologies like Wi-Fi. It’s not clear that the Forum has a position on that and frankly I haven’t heard a satisfactory description of a future landscape that includes WiMax plus all the other broadband wireless technologies like 3G. Usually, I just find vendors pretty much avoiding my questions of how WiMax fits with 3G.
“Even though the WiMax Forum doesn’t really want to say that WiMax is a competitor to 3G, they all do overlap to some degree,” said Lindsay Schroth, an analyst with the Yankee Group. But 3G is a pretty powerful force in the worldwide market so the Forum is likely not terribly interested in pitting WiMax directly against 3G. But unless the Forum can define WiMax’s position in the market, everyone is going to approach it cautiously.
Bob Metcalfe has become a big fan of the idea of WiMax: One of the main reasons he’s excited about it is because he thinks that WiMax will “light a fire under” ILECs, cable companies, and mobile operators. I hope that he’s right but unfortunately I suspect he’s not. Rather than seeing WiMax networks pop up to compete against those players, it’s likely that those companies will be the ones to build the biggest WiMax networks. In the U.S. at least, they are the companies in the position to build widescale WiMax networks because they control the spectrum and have the big brand names.
The Yankee Group’s Lindsay Schroth agrees that most likely the biggest and strongest WiMax operators will be a telco or a cable company. “People don’t want to hear this because it means staying with the duopoly, but it’s likely it will be them,” she said.
I wrote a story recently for Wireless Week and heard some very interesting comments from a major European operator: The mobile operator, which asked not to be named, is conducting a trial of IPWireless gear in Europe. The operator is interested in IPWireless as a fixed broadband solution, not for its mobile capabilities. The operator is already working on 3G and doesn’t really see why it would introduce a separate network like IPWireless, especially since the demand for 3G services isn’t even clear. The market for fixed broadband is very clear though so it makes more sense to target that space.
Also, the spokesperson said that having a broadband fixed network could allow the operator to enable customers to completely do away with their landlines. A lot of customers keep their landline phones only because they are required to in order to get a decent DSL rate. Those customers could fully rely on their mobile phones for voice telephony and use the IPWireless network for broadband access.
The operator has also looked closely at WiMax and while it could be an option in the future, he noted that IPWireless is available today. What WiMax promises to deliver in 2007, IPWireless offers today, he said. The operator doesn’t want to wait until then. It could migrate to WiMax down the road if it becomes a much less expensive option, but the spokesperson doesn’t expect that it will. Or, the operator could begin offering access to the IPWireless network on a mobile basis, building a WiMax network to replace the fixed service.
His comments made me think that the vendors like IPWireless and Flarion might pose more of a threat to WiMax than the WiMax camp might perceive. This is a pretty significant European mobile operator I spoke with and if that’s how his company feels about WiMax, others might too. If the vendors like IPWireless and Flarion manage to attract enough customers, the price of their equipment will drop, just like the price of WiMax equipment will drop with volume. The operators may gamble on which equipment will drop faster.
CNN/Money takes a look at which companies might profit from WiMax: While some of the facts in this story are a bit shaky, it generally does a nice job of looking at the risks and the potential of WiMax. I’ll be interested to watch how the vendor community changes over the next couple of years. As the article notes, some of the big vendors are reselling gear from the likes of Alvarion and Airspan. But what this author misses is that some of the same bigger vendors that are reselling such gear have already announced that they’ll make their own versions to comply with the mobile WiMax standard. In February, Alcatel, which resells Alvarion products, said it would work with Intel on the development of mobile WiMax equipment. Siemens, which resells Alvarion gear, also recently introduced its own line of WiMax products. But companies including Ericsson and Nokia which haven’t done much in the WiMax space will surely want to sell WiMax equipment so they could be potential buyers for the likes of Alvarion, Airspan, or any of the other many WiMax vendors.
WiMax operators and telcos both fear that WiMax networks in already crowded markets threaten the profitability of both types of operators: They fear that competition for customers will increase their costs while the demand drives down end user prices, putting the squeeze on profits. That’s one more argument for why WiMax makes most sense in the U.S. in underserved markets.
The U.S. presents an unusual market for WiMax because of the broad availability of broadband and the spectrum situation there. Only a few lucky companies hold the ideal spectrum in which to deploy WiMax. The rest have to grapple with deciding to deploy using unlicensed frequencies. The large major telcos are unlikely to use the unlicensed bands for fear of unreliability.
Both BellSouth and Qwest have tested WiMax-like systems with BellSouth saying it may start offering a service next year.
While mobility may be key to the potential for WiMax to succeed, the networks must also be ubiquitous, argues David Haskin at Mobile Pipeline: Having WiMax chips built into laptops, as Intel envisions, will be useless unless WiMax networks are fairly widespread. Ubiquity is one aspect where the mobile operators, who are busy upgrading to HSDPA, have an advantage. It’s far easier for them to upgrade their networks to HSDPA for coverage throughout their entire footprint. A similar amount of coverage will take many years for a WiMax provider to build, given that they haven’t started yet and the equipment isn’t available yet.
I suspect that the mobile operators don’t actually want to compete head to head with WiMax. They can make more money by loading their HSDPA networks with applications that end users access via their handsets. These applications, which might include video or music downloads, will earn more revenue per MB and per MHz than straight data access to a PC card in a laptop. For that reason, operators that serve major markets, will continue to price straight data access comparatively high to discourage customers from using HSDPA as a DSL replacement. In fringe markets without much landline broadband competition, the scenario may be different.
Jeff Thompson, TowerStream’s founder, is right when he says that the competition to worry about is the RBOC: Thompson isn’t the only broadband wireless operator to make the distinction between competing against other potential wireless operators and the RBOCs. That distinction may get harder to make as time goes on and operators that use the unlicensed bands start interfering with each other. But that will be the time when it’s most important for the operators to band together. For a story I wrote for Wireless Week magazine, I talked to Graham Barnes, CEO of wireless ISP NextWeb, about a program he’s involved with that aims to help operators avoid interfering with each other. I quoted him in the story saying this: “The mindset I try to foster is that individual fixed wireless operators are not each other’s competition,” he says. “Our primary competition is the telcos, ILECs and CLECS. We have miniscule market shares compared to an SBC or local telco.” It would take a very very long time for a broadband wireless operator to build out a large enough network to seriously compete from a coverage perspective with the telcos. As such, the wireless operators would do well to essentially form a united front.
There was some discussion at the Wireless Communication Association conference about how WiMax and 3G might coexist: It’s pretty difficult to take many comments made on the subject at face value because many people have a vested stake in the issue. Here, a Seimens executive notes that WiMax and 3G should be complementary. He can’t exactly say anything different though, because he’s got 3G customers and hopes to also pursue WiMax business.
He said that he expects 3G operators to use WiMax to offload data from their UMTS systems. That’s a nice idea, but one that should take many years to work out. A seamless handoff would require devices that can handle the different frequencies and technologies.
On a side note, Sean Maloney, head of Intel’s Communications Group, makes a humorous comment. He cautions against over-hyping WiMax. With Intel leading the WiMax charge, perhaps he should take a bit of his own advice.
With 3G services launching across Europe, plenty of sources are discussing the potential affect that WiMax may have on 3G: 3G is an expensive service to roll out, which translates into higher prices for end users as operators look to pay off their investments. By contrast, WiMax offers a better return on investment, which means cost for end users might be less expensive so that WiMax could steal some market share that may otherwise have gone to 3G.
Consultancy TelecomView expects WiMax and other broadband wireless technologies to corner 40 percent of the broadband wireless market in 2009, with 3G taking the rest. Realistically, that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s 2005 and WiMax equipment doesn’t even exist yet, so it’s unlikely that in four years it will make up almost half of the market, given that 3G networks are already being rolled out. However, the business case for WiMax is a bit cleaner than that for 3G so it clearly has potential.
Stories about the confusion around WiMax and the potential for WiMax have been running for ages, but they keep coming: That’s testament to the fact that much of the controversy surrounding WiMax hasn’t been addressed. The confusion stems mainly from vendors that continue to either flat out refer to their product as WiMax, even though the certification process hasn’t yet started, or use the term “pre-WiMax,” which can be equally confusing in its implication that the product can easily be upgraded to WiMax.
Wi-LAN’s president and CEO doesn’t help clear things up in this article. He says that Wi-LAN guarantees that it will upgrade its products to be equal to or better than a “pure” WiMax network. Yes, but does that mean that the upgraded products will be certifiable? Because already there are plenty of products on the market that meet the parameters of WiMax but they aren’t yet technically WiMax.
The market for WiMax has also been increasingly put under the microscope, partly because more and more mobile operators around the globe are launching their 3G networks. There is still a debate about how the two networks might co-exist. Because the 3G networks are coming to market before true WiMax gear even exists, perhaps some in the WiMax camp are worried about how 3G might affect the potential WiMax market.
I suspect that another concern for the WiMax industry is that despite the amount of buzz that has surrounded WiMax for some time, no marquee operator has pledged to use it in a big way (certainly in part because the gear isn’t there yet). Some big names have joined the WiMax Forum and some big deployments of broadband wireless networks are in progress, but there’s no big market leader from the operator corner lending the movement credibility. That’s just what IDC claims in a recent report, noting that only a niche opportunity exists for WiMax through 2008, absent a major service provider’s firm commitment.