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The New York Times and BusinessWeek are bullish on the Sprint Xohm launch in Baltimore: Two veteran tech reporters, who have had time to see it all and be cynical about it all, are fairly positive about the Sprint launch of WiMax. This is the first city-wide launch in the U.S. for regular signups, and one of the largest networks now operating in the world. (As far as I can tell, Seoul's WiMax-compatible WiBro network is still not designed for 100-percent city coverage, but is boutique.)
Bob Tedeschi at the Times found solid performance wherever he tested, but he notes the caveat that the network is nearly empty at the moment. While comparing Sprint's promised up to 4 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up, he uses an outdated number for AT&T's 3G network. AT&T used to give out the numbers he states, but as of their HSUPA upgrade a few months ago, they claim 700 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps downstream and 500 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps upstream. I haven't had the opportunity to test these rates, but this is their current claim, not what Tedeschi reported.
Tedeschi checked out various adapters and devices, including the Nokia N810 WiMax Edition ($500) that just went on sale. He had problems with video playback, but that could have been the network or the phone's operating system or the site he was accessing. He did like the quality of VoIP calls.
BusinessWeek's Stephen Wildstrom was more enthusiastic, seeing rates of 3 Mbps down and 500 Kbps to 1 Mbps up, and was able to watch Hulu.com streaming content as a passenger in a moving vehicle.
Both reporters note that WiMax seems to improve on Wi-Fi and cell data service in both speed (as 3 Mbps is faster than most Wi-Fi hotspots, and much faster than the average of most 3G networks), availability (for Wi-Fi), and cost (for 3G).
Subscriptions are a little complicated: $30 for roaming, $35 for home, $45 for a combined plan, and $60 for multiple devices, if I have all that right. Subscribers also need to buy a dongle, card, adapter, or CPE (home bridge), which seem to run under $100. Adapters will eventually be built into Intel-designed laptops.
DSLReports has a tip that Sprint will launch its WiMax service in its first commercially available market on 6-Oct-2008: The site for the service should go live on 26-Sept, allowing sign ups. Pricing will likely be sub-$50. Speeds will likely be advertised as 2 to 4 Mbps with higher bursts. Long-time market watcher Karl Bode writes that backhaul issues appear to be sorted out, with Sprint having signed a number of new deals to ensure that their high-bandwidth WiMax sites can be fed with enough bites.
Baltimore is one of what I believe are still three test markets that will go into commercial availability, albeit as much as a year after initial plans, and then months delayed after revised plans were announced. Still 2 to 4 Mbps is far above the level that current cell technology can achieve as a consistent range.
MetroFi will sell its networks, but plans to shutter if there are no buyers: Ah, folks, the trifecta has arrived, and I'm nothing but sad about it. MetroFi's chief Chuck Haas emailed me this evening with the news that his firm has decided that they will sell their networks in nine cities, including their first cities in the Bay Area (Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale), and their largest muni deployment in Portland, Ore. If no buyers emerge--including the cities in question--Haas said that MetroFi would have a shutdown plan for gradually unlighting the networks. Update: Portland has been offered its network for $894,000; the city is "considering it."
MetroFi was one of the three most prominent pure play metro-scale Wi-Fi firms, if you count EarthLink's municipal wireless division as a separate operation, and Kite Networks, which was a subsidiary of a larger telecom firm. Each company had made a unique network hardware choice--MetroFi, SkyPilot; Kite, Strix; and EarthLink Tropos plus Motorola--and each had a sort of specialty. Interestingly, a fifth firm, BelAir powers Toronto (a small but super-fast Wi-Fi network) and Minneapolis (the only putatively completed large-city Wi-Fi network), and will be behind Cablevision's nearly $350m New York Wi-Fi plan.
MetroFi was the only major firm to back ad-supported no-fee access, coupled with paid, no-ads service, and higher tiered commercial offerings. They built mostly smaller cities, with Portland being their only real big city win. The firm began with the notion of building Wi-Fi out gradually as a way to provide broadband in communities that lacked service, with no municipal involvement. That plan required sparser networks and typically a home signal booster designed by SkyPilot. (Kite mostly focused on the Southwest; EarthLink on big cities.)
EarthLink was in many ways largely responsible for the mess that all Wi-Fi providers found themselves in last year by offering to build Philadelphia's network back in 2005 at no cost to the city--in fact, paying the city and the local utility fees. That set the stage for nearly all the RFPs that followed where, if EarthLink were a bidder or the city was aware of the alternatives, the notion was that no city dollars would be spent, even if taxpayer money wasn't "at risk"--that is, even if a city could save money by switching current line items in their telecom and data budget to a wireless network.
Haas noted via email that MetroFi has been working towards anchor commitments by cities for nearly two years, but the inertia of those early networks led municipalities to reject those options. In Toledo, where MetroFi had negotiated an anchor commitment, a change in administration led a new mayor to retreat from the plan.
Is there a future for metro-scale Wi-Fi? Yes. With thoughtfully constructed, outdoor-focused deployments centered on municipal purposes, with public access a secondary issue, it seems like these networks could still provide an inexpensive way for relatively high bandwidth compared to the alternative of cell data networks.
However, that advantage is likely short lived in larger markets. The near-future certainty now that there will be multiple provides offering wired broadband speed service starting later this year with Sprint/Clearwire's WiMax, and continuing through into 2012 with significant network buildout by Verizon and AT&T in several bands (including their new 700 MHz holdings).
While Sprint/Clearwire is talking about 120m to 140m homes passed by 2010 with their network, obviously focusing only on major markets, many of the 700 MHz licenses purchased by AT&T and Verizon carry buildout requirements with penalties. So cities outside the top 100 population markets and rural areas will still see some benefit. In those mid-tier markets, there's also the 3.65 GHz band for shared licensed use, which is a model that Azulstar is pursuing with new WiMax deployments, as I wrote about recently.
Competition will likely push the cost of mobile broadband far below its $60 per month 2-year contract rate of today, which then would beg the question why a city or county with good commercial coverage would need to build its own Wi-Fi network. There are still plenty of reasons to build dedicated, first-responder 4.9 GHz public safety networks, of course.
I've always described Wi-Fi on a metropolitan scale as the best, worst technology. The best, because everyone has Wi-Fi in their laptops and increasingly in handhelds and gadgets. The worst, because the technology is absolutely not designed for the purpose, unlike CDMA and GSM evolved cell standards and mobile WiMax.
It's possible that in the long term, looking five years out, that Wi-Fi on a metro-scale will only be needed in small towns, odd markets, and for highly particular purposes. Or, perhaps in a bit of irony, where companies like Cablevision feel Wi-Fi is necessary to retain the loyalty of their highly wired customer base.
I'm trying to wrap my head around the series of announcements and developments this last week that will change the face of cell service, and notably wireless broadband in the U.S.: In short succession, you have:
Yes, it's Google, Google, Google all over. While Google's Android platform might not take off, it's pretty clear that the disruptive influence of Google combined with the WiMax direction chosen by Sprint Nextel are reforming the future of the industry. But WiMax might get left out of the dance.
You see, with Forsee out of Sprint and Zander out of Motorola, you have two major firms that were committed to WiMax looking for leaders who will come in and not continue doing precisely what lead to their predecessors being forced out. Which means WiMax will be on the chopping block. Motorola could write down its Clearwire investment and spin off its Expedience division bought from that company, while refocusing on 3G and 4G cell. Sprint could decide to deploy something entirely different in 2.5 GHz, even if that delayed network buildout, rather than investing billions in something that they're now not clear they want to move on.
On the consumer side, things are brighter. It's likely that by 2009, we will see substantial competition among devices--think about the diversity of digital cameras available in sizes, formats, and features--where we might pick a device first and then choose a carrier. Android could be part of that mix, but the FCC's pressure combined with market changes seem to be leading to cell networks in which you won't have the same kind of lock-in and commitment--it'll be more like Europe is but with greater competition reducing the cost of devices.
This openness could, in turn, supplant some of Wi-Fi's forward momentum as the de facto wireless technology to build into portable devices. Wi-Fi is a best effort technology, which means that it's not reliable. It's a contention medium and there's no company offering ubiquitous coverage--aggregators offer national and international subscriptions, but that's not the same thing. If the cost of making and certifying devices to use on a cellular network drops precipitously, and volume of chips sold would be one of those factors, it wouldn't be weird to buy a really good camera that has a 3G or 4G cell chip installed that you could use on a pay-as-you-go basis or as an add-on to an existing cell account you might have.
None of the cell carriers is particularly eager to allow more competition as that reduces margin, increases customer churn, and makes their returns more dependent on their short-term actions as people migrate around. But the fact that so many carriers are now promoting actions that will make life harder on them and their shareholders means clearly that the momentum is there for this change to sink in.
Google could sit back and do nothing, and they've already forced change. Sprint can't sit back and do nothing--but there's speculation Google might simply purchase them to pursue its goals. I doubt it, but Sprint will be a very different company within a year.
NTT DoCoMo said they hit nearly 5 Gbps between a transmitter and receiver, with the receiver moving at 10 km/h: A year ago, they hit 2.5 Gbps. The new device doubles MIMO antennas from 6 to 12 and improves signal processing. The same 100 MHz of spectrum was used. The company will release details at next week's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. 4G was thought to be slated to launch as early as 2010, but a Super 3G flavor of WCDMA will precede it with 100 Mbps speeds by 2010.
The Wall Street Journal reports on an expected demonstration by Samsung of a 4G network: Many kinds of networks are now labeled 4G (fourth generation), such as Sprint Nextel's planned mobile WiMax network, because 4G originally meant "all Internet protocol." No more of this circuit-switched emulation with proprietary this and that. (There will probably still be proprietary this and that in 4G, of course.)
Samsung will reportedly show a mobile data system that operates at 100 Mbps at speeds up to 60 km per hour (37 miles per hour) as well as a nomadic connection with 1 Gbps performance. The Journal notes that NTT DoCoMo showed 2.5 Gbps at 12.4 mph--in the lab--as part of a previous technology demo.
Service using this definition of 4G isn't expected until 2010.
Update: Coverage from the Korea Times says that "yesterday's" demo--the international dateline plays havoc with us all--showed not just a demonstration of 1 Gbps performance at rest, but Samsung disclosed they had hit 3.5 Gbps at 5 km/h (3 mph) in the lab, thus surpassing NTT DoCoMo's reported top rate.
The demos took place in a bus that showed 32 simultaneous streaming high-definition video streams while video telephony and Internet browsing was also going on.