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Monica Paolini writes up her experience last week with Clear in Portland: Paolini, a Seattle-area wireless industry consultant, has a stake in WiMax--she's consulted for players in the industry--but she's also consistently honest about how technology performs. She visited Portland, Ore., for the Clearwire WiMax launch (under the Clear brand name), and collected some spot measurements of static indoor and outdoor service, as well as mobile. She plotted her test locations on a map.
The results are fairly stunning, with fast service almost everywhere, and few interruptions. WiMax's key current advantage is speed, with rates that could be 2 to 4 times the fastest available on cellular data networks, or as much as 5 to 10 times the mid-range to lower-end of cellular speeds.
Now, of course, Clearwire is throwing a lot more bandwidth at the wireless broadband problem: 10 MHz channels instead of 1.25 MHz (EVDO) or 5 MHz (UMTS/HSPA).
WiMax isn't suddenly proven to be the technology it's been promised to be, but the early reports continue to be good. What will define WiMax as a success is whether Clearwire can consistently deliver speeds, make mobile access work reliably, deal with congestion if they get a lot of uptake, and have an equipment ecosystem from their vendors that allows inexpensive adapters and home gateways.
Clearwire has finally launched a second city: Portland, Ore., close by to Intel's headquarters in Beaverton, finally gets WiMax coverage. This is the first network under the Clear brand, the service that's being deployed by the new Clearwire, a merger of the old Clearwire and the WiMax assets of Sprint Nextel. Over 700 sq mi are covered in the metropolitan region.
It was a poorly kept secret that Intel employees have been using WiMax service in the area for a couple of years, starting at their campus and eventually expanding out as the network was lit up for testing. Portland is an ideal early commercial market, however, because there's such a mix of old and new infrastructure, as well as suburbs and something like exurbs/rural not far from the city's boundaries due to an urban growth boundary.
From what I can tell, the impetus to get a city-wide Wi-Fi network (started by MetroFi, but never completed) was because of the uneven ability to get high-speed broadband. Clearwire's 768 Kbps to 6 Mbps residential service is price from $20 to $40 per month, which might be higher in some cases than comparable cable or DSL--but only if that cable or DSL is available. Business services may be far cheaper than landline offerings, while mobile and fixed bundles are much cheaper than anything the cell and wireline broadband companies can offer together so far.
Portland is served by Qwest, which is way behind in offering fiber-connected services, although it's finally rolling them out. Some of the suburbs are handled by Verizon, which is offering Fios in some places, its fiber-to-the-home service. (GTE once had parts of Washington and Oregon, and that operation was eventually folded into Verizon.)
It's no secret that Portland had WiMax service: It's just that you couldn't buy it. Intel has been WiMax with Clearwire for many months--it may be nearly 18 months now, if I recall correctly. Intel employees have been walking around the city and their campus in Beaverton with WiMax cards in their laptops, and not allowed to talk about it.
Thus, it's no surprise that the first market for Clear, the new brand for the combined Clearwire/Sprint Xohm operations, is Portland. I just qualified an address there of a friend, and find that the service can be ordered for the home with prices from $20/mo for 768 Kbps/128 Kbps to $40/mo for 6 Mbps/512 Kbps. Mobile prices are all rated for 4 Mbps/384 Kbps with monthly data limits: $30/mo for 200 MB, $40/mo for 2 GB, $50/mo for unlimited.
There's also a $35 activation fee, and a modem fee: $175 or $5 per month. This is far higher than Sprint's subsidized $50 modem deal with Xohm. Expect that to be harmonized.
Note that Clearwire suggests you read their Terms of Service for more details. As far as I can tell, unlimited isn't footnoted with a 5 GB or other limit. They will still obviously check for abuse, and the low upstream rates make it both difficult to run services and painfully clear if you are.
The upstream speeds are still far too slow. WiMax can be configured to allow relatively symmetric upstream rates, and I expect we'll see more of that as an option as Clearwire learns usage patterns.
The ordering process doesn't suggest that you have to wait, while Clearwire was saying yesterday that Portland service would be available in 2009. This might be noted when you consummate the order.
Because we didn't have enough on our minds on election day, the FCC met and made three relatively massive decisions: Let's start with white spaces. I have been avoiding posting too much about the topic, because it's mindbendingly boring to the average reader or businessperson who is more interested in technology or developments when they happen, not when they're discussed ad nauseum. The gist of the white spaces proposal is that computer industry giants want television channels that are unused in specific markets to provide assurance of a lack of interference among adjacent channels.
Microsoft, Google, Intel, HP, and many others covet the space to use for high-speed wireless networking for broadband and wireless LANs. Over short distances, rates rival 802.11n Wi-Fi speeds; over longer distances, speeds will likely be closer to 10 Mbps. The expectation is that the frequencies, way down in the 54 to 698 MHz range, would have enormously superior propagation characteristics when coupled with higher power limits than Wi-Fi's 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz deployments. With adaptive scanning required to avoid stepping on licensed users, the white spaces technology would likely be much more resilient than Wi-Fi, too, as well as having a larger span of channels on which to choose to operate.
The National Association of Broadcasters, representing owners of TV stations and networks, protested that regardless of how well designed devices were to avoid interfering with TV signals, it was inevitable that they would. Dolly Parton surprisingly entered the fray--nearly a la Wi-Fi patron Hedy Lamarr--on behalf of the wireless microphone industry, which has a licensed low-power use for theater and performance.
The FCC voted 5-0 to move forward. Manufacturers would still be going through tightly controlled FCC certification and testing for their devices, and one imagines the NAB will be watching very closely as well.
The FCC also voted 5-0 to approve a WiMax merger/spinoff that allows Sprint Nextel to reorganize its Xohm broadband operation into a new firm that would be merged with Clearwire's assets and be named Clearwire. The new operation already has billions lined up from Google, Intel, and cable operators to invest. The Justice Department already gave its general go-ahead, too.
This move sets the stage for a real battle among all broadband providers: it will force AT&T and Verizon to move quite aggressively to use the new 700 MHz bandwidth they acquired (and plan to deploy GSM-based LTE over, even though LTE is still officially in the lab, not in production); and for wireline provides like AT&T and Verizon, as well as Comcast, Cablevision, Qwest, and all the rest, to rethink pricing, speed, and services that Clearwire enters. If WiMax pans out as a viable third or even fourth pipe into the home, other broadband options in the same markets will be cheaper and faster.
Finally, in the least-interesting part of the news, the FCC voted to approve, with Dems partially dissenting--procedural thing, it appears--to allow Alltel to be acquired by Verizon to create the biggest U.S. cell carrier. Alltel was the largest of the smaller carriers, as it were, providing service in areas that the major carriers often overlooked. The Alltel acquisition is partially an infrastructure play that reduces Verizon's roaming costs while expanding its customer base.
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.
Azulstar once pinned its fortunes on city-wide Wi-Fi, but now looks to a special licensed spectrum band to make WiMax work where Wi-Fi failed: Azulstar has been the also-ran in Wi-Fi for some years, I'll just state bluntly and upfront. They built a network in Grand Haven, Mich., in 2003 that's one of--if not the--longest running metro-scale Wi-Fi networks in the world designed for public access. The mayor of Grand Haven since 2003, Roger Bergman, told me, "I got on board personally right away, and I am still on."
Azulstar soon answered several RFPs and partnered up with major firms to bring Wi-Fi to Rio Rancho, N.M., Winston-Salem, N.C., Sacramento, Calif., and most notably Silicon Valley--a set of dozens of cities along with county government and private enterprise all wanting some kind of tiered Wi-Fi across 1,500 sq mi.
While EarthLink, MetroFi, and even Kite Networks (with their extensive Arizona buildout in Tempe launched a bit before any other large competiting network) seized the headlines, and later made news about their stalls, failures, and exits, Azulstar seemed quietly to sink into the sand. The Wireless Silicon Valley deal fell apart, as did Sacramento after efforts to get stakeholder and outside investment seemed to fail to materialize, and the marquee partners--Cisco, IBM, and Intel--just wouldn't step up to the plate to make the project move forward. Azulstar was the lead techology firm, but the money just didn't come. (Both California projects are moving forward with a different set of partners and expectations now.)
Rio Rancho was perhaps one of the biggest letdowns. City manager Jim Payne explained in an interview a few weeks ago, "They had a number of things that were going against them from the start, and they did make an attempt to meet the requirements of the contract." But Rio Rancho voted to not just terminate the contract after years of attempts to make the network work, but rejected a proposal from Azulstar a few weeks ago to switch over equipment on the poles. Azulstar now has to remove all its devices.
All of this might make the typical company head a bit depressed about his firm's future, and less than sanguine about the potential for wireless broadband to work at all. Not so for Tyler van Houwelingen, Azulstar's chief, and I have to admit that he convinced me that the wireless provider has a fighting chance, due to a good combination of timing, spectrum policy, and a large dollop of can-do spirit.
Speculation is rampant around early glimpse of Macworld Expo banners: The banners (normally not seen until after the keynote) read "There's something in the air," which David Morgenstern speculates could refer to the inclusion of mobile WiMax (which he bucks the trend and calls WiMax Mobile, for some reason). I hesitate to stick my neck on the line, but I think it's unlikely Apple would push mobile WiMax at this point. But I've been wrong before.
Back in 2003, I said that Apple wouldn't introduce 802.11g products at the January Macworld Expo event because 802.11g wasn't yet well baked, and Apple wouldn't expose its customers to months of firmware updates and incompatibility issues with other Wi-Fi adapters and base stations. I was wrong! It took eight months of firmware fixes to get 802.11g just right, but we lived through.
In 2007, I thought it unlikely that despite the presence of what seemed like 802.11n chips in many Intel-based Macintoshes dissected by those interested in the innards that Apple would jump the gun on the standard which was still not clearly settled in its direction. Again, I was wrong: Apple pulled the trigger, and announced its 802.11n product and an activator for most Intel Core 2 Duo based Macs that had shipped to that point. A few days later, the IEEE group voted overwhelmingly to approve the draft of 802.11n that settled the issue as it moves to ratification.
Thus my track record is poor on Apple's wireless plans. Nonetheless, I think WiMax isn't in the cards. Rather, it's more likely for Apple to build in HSPA (high-speed packet access), the GSM evolution standard for 3G. I haven't seen this speculated elsewhere, so I may be totally off base, but here's my logic.
Mobile WiMax isn't yet deployed. With 802.11g and 802.11n, you could buy components from Apple and immediately use the higher speed for your own network. With Mobile WiMax, most Mac owners won't be able to access a network, for which they will have to subscribe or pay usage fees, until mid- to late 2008. People generally resent paying for technology they simply cannot use. Apple would also take a margin hit for including the internal adapter, which isn't in wide production yet.
In that light, HSPA is a more reasonable choice with its few hundred Kbps upstream and several hundred Kpbs downstream average performance. AT&T, its iPhone partner, already has HSPA networks deployed in the U.S.; it's determined to roll them out nationally, although its unclear what areas have the slower UMTS standard--faster than EDGE, slower than HSPA--and which have HSPA. (HSPA is often labled as HSDPA for the 3.6 Mbps or 7.2 Mbps raw "downlink" flavor and HSUPA for the 1.9 Mbps or 5.8 Mbps upstream flavors.)
The 3G iPhone will incorporate HSPA, and thus it would make sense for Apple to not be building in technology that's tied to a rival--Sprint Nextel--to its main and exclusive phone carrier partner.
What's more likely, however, is that the "in the air" has something to do with streaming media, a revised Apple TV, and new content than with a new network standard. But given my 0 for 2 record, you might want to take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Clearwire and Sprint Nextel agreed to allow roaming on their underway mobile WiMax networks: It's a huge shot in the arm for mobile WiMax, as neither of the two firms have enough geographic licenses to allow allow full national coverage. Sprint Nextel planned to back up its WiMax network with its 3G EVDO coverage; Clearwire had no such plan, as it has no other spectrum or network holdings. The deal allows Clearwire to roam onto Sprint's 3G network, which is a boon for them. Both firms can avoid patchy networks now that would make business travelers and companies with national footprints less likely to sign up.
Now, the reason I pose the question as to whether municipal Wi-Fi networks could suffer as a result is that mobile WiMax is a superior technology to Wi-Fi for large-scale mobility and indoor coverage. Yes, this is a Wi-Fi-oriented site. Yes, I have spent much of the last six years writing largely about Wi-Fi. Yes, there are hundred of city-wide Wi-Fi networks in planning stages or being built.
And, true, mobile WiMax in a new, unproven technology with a lot of promise that has to demonstrate its effectiveness in the real world. Truly mobile adapters that fit in or are built into laptops, handhelds, and gadgets like cameras and gaming systems, have yet to come (although we should see laptop cards next year), and are critical for widescale adoption. (Intel has plans to embed Wi-Fi and mobile WiMax in a reference laptop design, of course.)
But there's no question that mobile WiMax is a fresh standard built for long-distance, mobile, outdoor use, and that doesn't use spectrum with tons of competing uses (Wi-Fi) or require support or interoperability with legacy technology (Wi-Fi, cell data). WiMax is the ideal technology for building city-wide wireless networks. It just has to prove itself, and the providers have to offer competitive pricing, too, when compared to those offered for metro-scale Wi-Fi networks, Wi-Fi hotspots, and cell data networks.
I've been saying for some time that Wi-Fi is a "best-worst" technology for metro-scale rollouts (it's the "best-best" for wireless LANs). It's the worst, because it's not designed to work in metro-scale environments, and accommodations for that involve decisions like having mesh nodes that blast the maximum allowable power out in every direction. Wi-Fi is well designed to cope with interference, but not in the complicated RF environments that already exist in every urban area in the developed world. It's a best effort technology, so that you can't guarantee results, because of interference, co-existence, and power limits.
Wi-Fi is the best, however, because it's here today, and well characterized. We know how Wi-Fi works. You can roll it out without licenses, it's flexible, and almost every laptop and an ever-increasing number of mobile devices sold today has a Wi-Fi adapter built in.
Municipalities considering today whether to write a request for proposals to encourage or authorize citywide Wi-Fi networks, especially with what appears to be a new requirement by service providers like MetroFi to sign up for multi-year contracts, may step back to think about WiMax. I've already been thinking that if you were starting today, the near-term availability of 802.11n and MIMO gear for metropolitan deployment--maybe 6 to 12 months away--should make you hesitate in finding a firm that's designing the network today.
Now you're saying, Glenn, Glenn, Glenn, WiMax will be controlled by two firms in this country, extending the oligopoly of the telecoms, wired and wireless, and that Wi-Fi can be deployed by anyone, at any time, whether a city, a non-profit, a neighborhood, or a large-scale service provider--or even a telecom. WiMax is totalitarian; Wi-Fi is socialist.
True. But there's a thin margin that Wi-Fi has over WiMax. Cost and availability of adapters will likely be an issue for as long as two years. Speed is another: Wi-Fi's boost into 802.11n should allow dramatically higher speeds, although large-scale networks need to figure out how to exploit this to their customer's advantage.
The final part of that margin is that Wi-Fi can be offered to cities for a fraction of the cost of cell data, like EVDO and HSDPA. Even with large-scale subscriptions, cities still pay close to $60 per month for cell data subscriptions per card or user, plus the initial cost of the adapter (from $0 to $100, typically). Wi-Fi-equipped laptops in a metro-scale network can hop on an office Wi-Fi network when a city worker is in the office, and then roam onto a secure city-wide network as needed. Because Wi-Fi works across all operating systems, there's no driver limitation as there is with specific support for 3G adapters.
If Clearwire and Sprint Nextel are smart--and Clearwire has already been bidding on city-wide networks--they'll be able to put together a package for municipalities that guts one of the primary financial legs for citywide Wi-Fi. In Seattle, with Clearwire's current proprietary, pre-WiMax gear, you can spend about $35 per month for 1.5 Mbps down and 256 Kbps. They provide a nomadic adapter; one of my colleagues carries the small AC-powered device with him so he can work from home or at his girlfriend's apartments.
With the right offer for municipalities, a city or town could avoid the whole issue about providing access, dealing with utility poles, coping with community groups and their privacy concerns, and waiting for the buildout. Instead, Sprint and Clearwire will just keep lighting up cities and knocking on their doors. (Oh, and Clearwire and Sprint already have voice integrated into their mobile WiMax plans, just by the way.)
EarthLink's reaction here will be critical. The new CEO said a few weeks ago that he'd have a decision in 30 to 60 days about the company's future direction. Some of us who follow the firm expect that the municipal network division could go into maintenance mode, continuing on active networks, and pulling out of undone proposals. This Clearwire/Sprint roaming decision could affect EarthLink's plans, by removing one of the potential underpinnings of their financial model.
The WiMax developer and licensed spectrum holder NextWave will acquire metro-scale Wi-Fi gear maker Go Networks: Go's equipment uses MIMO to fill more space at lower cost, the company has said. NextWave, a successor firm to the 1990s cell operator and Supreme Court case victor over spectrum auctions, has a portfolio of WiMax hardware and a set of licenses they purchased in the recent advanced wireless services auction. NextWave also acquired some German WiMax licenses last month.
NextWave is obviously assembling a set of technologies that they can roll out in test markets that they have spectrum in, and will be well positioned to test the effectiveness of MIMO-based Wi-Fi as a complement and supplement to WiMax in urban areas.
The Go Networks' deal is valued at $13.3m with a separate assumption of $7.5m in debt. Go would also receive $25.7m in stock for meeting milestones 18 months after the deal closes.
The folks at Network Computing have delivered a mammoth, superb overview of mobile wireless data: The article by Peter Rysavy--a wireless consultant that I had a great interview with last winter--and Jameson Blandford covers the history of wireless data; the current market of cell data and pricing, Wi-Fi mesh and municipal networks, and mobile WiMax; and looks at the long-term disruption that's to come. While the article is focused on how companies can manage their data needs and deal with costs associated with services, the technology and market explanations are universal. This is a must-read.
I keep seeing phrases like "WiMax is Wi-Fi on steroids." It's not. Here's why: The fundamental difference between WiMax and Wi-Fi is that WiMax is intended for licensed spectrum in which contention among providers with different interests is eliminated; Wi-Fi is designed for a hostile environment in which every party must accept interference within the legal limits without complaint.
WiMax works over long distances because the spectrum band rules in which it will be deployed for licensed service allow higher signal strength and have higher parameters in every area than the FCC Part 15 rules (and similar regulations internationally) that define Wi-Fi's use in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band. WiMax also benefits from the licenseholder coordinating among itself. Wi-Fi lives and dies by contention, a fear in municipal-scale networks.
Wi-Fi is a best efforts technology. Like an eager and precocious child in a raucous classroom full of other precocious children and noisy underachievers, Wi-Fi struggles to be heard while not stepping outside the rules. It often is heard, but its answers to some question are drowned out or need to be repeated. Sometimes, it takes a lot of effort to just spell serendipity because it has to say each letter loudly and slowly for the teacher--the access point--to hear what it's saying.
WiMax is a service level agreement (SLA) technology. WiMax is a private symposium with a talking stick in an elite, organized, and expensive university. In each classroom in the groves of academe, you find extremely well-turned-out students in bespoke clothing, none of whom dares speak without tacit permission of the profession. In fact, it's a bit more like watching staged readings of synchronized poetry than it is a discussion. There is no contention, and each professor rules each classroom as a captain rules his or her ship.
Before you get huffy out there and say, hey, there's going to be unlicensed WiMax, too, or, there's already unlicensed WiMax, think again. There is no unlicensed profile yet approved for WiMax. Any device that uses 5.8 GHz may be lovely, full of light and truth and the joy in exciting electrons into different states at high frequencies, but it isn't certified WiMax. Further, the word is that there may never be a certified profile for the unlicensed bands.
The 5 GHz band gets a real workout, especially 5.8 GHz with its special point-to-point rules for higher signal gain, in metro-scale Wi-Fi networks because it's the only affordable way to backhaul data, and by using highly directional signals, they can bypass quite a bit of the interference issues in that band. At least for now.
Now, I have been pigeonholed as pro-Wi-Fi because I run this blog with the title Wi-Fi in it. I also run a WiMax blog and have for years (originally with help from a colleague). My allegiance is to the consumer rather than the technology, and to the application rather than the physical medium over which applications run. I am not afraid to say that Wi-Fi is often the best-worst technology for a given situation. I could also say that Wi-Fi technology is fundamentally a mid-90s approach to wireless networking wrapped in modern encodings for speed. (Even 802.11n suffers from this.) WiMax is a 21st century technology that has roots in the past, but fewer of the past's limitations.
With more WiMax in the mix in the US, as now is inevitable (whether it's financially advantageous to the firms involve), we will see a lot more tradeoffs between Wi-Fi and WiMax. Wi-Fi's key advantages today are that it works, it's deployed, it's cheap, and it's in practically every laptop. Fixed and mobile WiMax will have some of those advantages within one year.
Intel's $600m investment in Clearwire had an impact? Sprint picks their next-generation network technology: Mobile WiMax. They'll use this to reach 85 percent of the U.S.'s top 200 markets by 2008 using their 2.5 GHz licenses. While they have deployed EVDO extensively with plans to upgrade it in the 4th quarter to a faster version, they've also made it clear they were looking for more ways to deliver more data than their cell spectrum holdings allowed.
Read my full analysis on our WiMax Networking News site.
The Wall Street Journal reported last night that they've decided on WiMax (confirmed in their news conference on Tuesday), which allows both fixed and mobile deployments in its newer flavor. Building a national network would cost $1b to $4b, the Journal reports. A Sprint VP told the Journal that the firm wants to be a conduit for media, and only this kind of network--not the current roadmap for 3G cellular--can deliver the bandwidth.
Qualcomm is left out of the dance on this one. They offered their subsidiary Flarion's technology to Sprint. The Journal says that, according to analysts, Sprint didn't want to be stuck with a single vendor that controlled the technology. WiMax is already too big to be controlled by any one firm, although Intel has set much of the mobility direction through heavy investments.
Sprint could even buy equipment from Motorola, which then starts to make sense about how Clearwire spun off their adapter and hardware division in exchange for cash and investments. Motorola can be a vendor to Sprint without Sprint feeling like they're directly funding their competition, and without Clearwire holding back key technology or driving it in directions Sprint is uninterested in. Update: Motorola was part of the announcement; they will be a partner in some fashion.
Mobile WiMax explained for you: In this podcast, I interview Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting. Paolini is an expert on the intersection of financial projections, technology, and market needs, and works with the WiMax Forum among other groups. Because of her wide-ranging interests, we focused on mobile WiMax in this podcast, as I think it's one of the coming technologies that's worst understood and most misrepresented because of the obscurity of parts of its operation.
We talk about the differences between fixed and mobile WiMax, along with 802.16-2004 and -2005, the underlying standards that are commonly associated with the two terms. We walk through the spectrum bands that might be used in the US and internationally for both fixed-only and fixed/portable/mobile services. And Clearwire's recent massive receipt of Intel and Motorola money is examined as it affects the future of mobile WiMax in the U.S. [39 min., 20 MB, MP3]
Centrino: Cometa. Rosedale: Clearwire. And so on: May I be forgiven for invoking the late and largely unlamented Cometa as Intel Capital stuffs $600m (of a $900m total investment) into Craig McCaw's already bulging pockets? Absolutely, I hear you cry.
In July 2002, we first heard about "Project Rainbow," which was launched as Cometa that December; the company said they'd build 20,000 hotspots over two years, though the number was later revised down. The initiative was lauded as a combination of Intel, IBM, AT&T, and two venture capital firms. In reality, as I have tried to remind people ever since, it was Intel Capital (funding), IBM's service division (installation), and AT&T's broadband division (service). None of the companies had anything on the line when Cometa failed.
Intel hopped on Wi-Fi after the train had left the station. By the time they launched Centrino and spent tens of millions on a Centro-verified hotspot branding program, 802.11b was already clearly on the way out. Centrino systems wouldn't get 802.11g for another year, and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security lagged longer with upgrades from Intel that conflicted with manufacturers' Windows XP editions.
Centrino was a huge success from a branding perspective, and Centrino laptops had substantially better battery life while not offering great performance.
Cometa ultimately went belly up in May 2004 after securing just a few hundred hotspots, with a focus in Seattle, and losing the McDonald's bid to Wayport. The Barnes & Noble contract that they had signed just before shutting down was taken up by SBC--now called AT&T. Poetic justice of a sort.
The company suffered from setting unmeetable goals. Their founder, Larry Brilliant, now the head of Google.org, made statements that went far beyond what was achievable in a maturing market, and then left to focus on his hot-zone--as in infectious disease--specialty, leaving the company holding that that bag. Intel had also lost interest in Wi-Fi. It had become an also-ran to WiMax. Wi-Fi had no strategic advantage to the firm given that it was a de rigeur part of every modern laptop.
And that's why Clearwire, my dear friends, is no Cometa.
First, Intel has staked the future of its telecommunications effort on WiMax. They've pushed money into dozens of companies. They've headed standards bodies, built chips, and subsidized a lot of early network development. They've pissed off cellular operators by creating buzz around technology that clearly competes and complements cell networks, revealing some of the paucity of user-oriented thinking in the cell industry. Intel has burned bridges and sown salts in other fields. If they can't make WiMax bloom, heads will roll from the top down.
Second, Intel "owns" WiMax in a way that they didn't with Wi-Fi. Intel didn't make its own Wi-Fi chips and wasn't a leader in the market, which was already four years into development when Centrino shipped. While there are dozens of companies, including some enormous ones who compete with Intel on many fronts involved in with WiMax, Intel has consistently taken a position far ahead of the market and somewhat ahead of the industry. They're not leaving this standard to other people.
Third, Clearwire has a spectrum portfolio. No one can own Wi-Fi, but you can buy pieces of WiMax by having exclusive spectrum rights for regions of the country. Clearwire surely needs more licenses, and I'm sure has a strategy about that, but they can reach 90m people now, they said in their now-withdrawn IPO filing a few weeks ago.
Fourth, the technology isn't unproven or oversold by Intel or Clearwire. There is a lot of hype around WiMax, but I can't find statements in which Intel or Clearwire oversells how the technology will deliver. They're leaving that to other firms. If anything, the two companies are underselling WiMax before they can deliver the goods.
Fifth, Intel Capital has invested something like $1b in WiMax if you include this $600m in Clearwire investment. That's something like at least 50 times more than their Cometa investment.
Sixth, there's a clear market out there for fixed and mobile wireless broadband, which is why there are hundreds of wireless ISPs and billions spent on cell data. It's also why the metro-scale wireless market is so hot, and why Wi-Fi--despite it being not the ideal technology for the purpose--will be blanketing hundreds of cities by the end of 2007.
Cometa had nothing unique over other hotspot operators except a staff split among at least three different headquarters that was much too large and a lack of signed contracts by the time they shut down. Hotspots were on the way to becoming a standard commodity that could be built and resold by a host of firms even as Cometa launched.
Clearwire has a particular set of advantages. They have Intel's attention. They have a chunk of spectrum licenses. They have a technology that works. And they have an audience that wants truly large-area mobile service from anyone but the incumbents--even if that's just for competitive sake to drive prices down.
Clearwire will execute, there's no doubt, and the question will be whether they can acquire enough customers at the right price to turn a profit. Cometa once talked about creating hotspots to such a large extent that they would cover every area in which a business traveler might find themselves. Clearwire has the potential to meet that target and avoid Cometa's fate.
Craig McCaw's broadband wireless firm Clearwire raises $600m from Intel Capital, $300m from others: The latest revolutionary wireless firm founded by McCaw aims to deploy mobile broadband wireless worldwide using mobile WiMax (part of 802.16e-2005). Part of the money comes from Motorola purchasing Clearwire's NextNet equipment subsidiary, which has been manufacturing and prototyping gear for Clearwire's network, starting with customer premises equipment (CPE), or the fixed receivers plugged in at homes.
Clearwire owns the second-largest portfolio of spectrum in the desirable 2.5 GHz band in the U.S.; Sprint Nextel is the biggest holder. This is a great band into which to deploy mobile WiMax because of the geographic coverage--Clearwire says that they can reach 90m residents with current licenses--and the channelization, which is wide enough to allow sufficient bandwidth for real mobile applications, including video. (While BellSouth owns a chunk in 2.5 GHz, their biggest holdings are in 2.3 GHz. They are already looking at equipment that would offer WiMax or WiMax-like services in both bands. This spectrum is part of AT&T-formerly-SBC's desire to purchase BellSouth, which would also give AT&T 100-percent ownership of Cingular, and allow more combined offerings there across DSL, cell data/3G, and WiMax.)
Intel has had a chicken-and-egg problem with its backing of WiMax, particularly the mobile and portable/nomadic form, in that they need networks to drive interest in the chips they plan to include in their laptop reference designs. By investing this heavily in Clearwire, they've basically guaranteed that a network will be built. This also seeds more interest in competing networks, and puts the cellular operators on notice that Intel is not their partner, if they ever harbored such a suspicion. In fact, Clearwire could offer competitive voice services over their network using handsets with mobile WiMax built in.
Intel is slated to ship Rosedale 2 chips by the end of the year, according to Light Reading, which will offer both older fixed (802.16-2004) and newer fixed/portable/mobile (802.16-2005) support. They'll also make Ofer-R available for Wi-Fi and WiMax support in portable and handheld devices.
Way back at the Centrino introduction, Intel told me that future Centrino wireless chipsets would incorporate Wi-Fi and cellular data standards. That never happened. Instead, Intel discovered the wonders of a newly competitive marketplace that they thought could evolve worldwide in which they could have a stake and a say in its operation and standards development. Intel has been a big force in WiMax from many angles, this being just the latest.
I'm often asked if WiMax will replace Wi-Fi: In fact, I received such an email this morning. Here's the answer I sent in reply.
WiMax and 802.11n (and related standards) are somewhat unrelated. Wi-Fi is a local area network technology; WiMax (whether fixed, nomadic, or mobile) are wide-area network technologies.
Wi-Fi will continue to evolve as the best way to spread a network over an office or home or small area in which a cloud of service is needed. WiMax will probably evolve as a great replacement, alternative, or complement to fixed wired and mobile wireless services. That is, instead of an ADSL line or T-1 line, you might have a WiMax receiver on your roof or an antenna in your window. Instead of a cell phone that uses 3G to carry video or a cell data card for accessing a 3G network, you might have a WiMax-equipped laptop or phone.
Wi-Fi is a local distribution tool to push bits among users connected nearby; with many Wi-Fi base stations using the same name, you can build seamless coverage on a college campus, city park, or corporate campus. While it's being used for metro-scale deployment, that's because it's the best worst solution. It's not designed for that purpose, but everyone already has a Wi-Fi adapter, the technology works in unlicensed spectrum avoiding that issue, and it's highly commodified making parts cheap across the supply chain for consumers, vendors, and network builders.
Right now, you can get WiMax or WiMax-like fixed broadband pretty readily in most major U.S. cities and in a lot of urban and rural areas worldwide. It's very competitive in performance over shorter distances when you get to or over T1 or E1 speeds (roughly 1.5 Mbps each way). Several providers in the US already compete in some cities, and offer incentives like 24 to 48 hours from order to live access and free antennas and receivers with long-term contracts. Switching from a T1 to the equivalent of two T1s over fixed WiMax is often about the same price--sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more.
Mobile WiMax has a tougher row to hoe here in the U.S. as spectrum is scarce in the bands that are most likely for it to use: a few carriers own most of the desirable bandwidth. This means that even if it's financially viable and Intel rolls out WiMax adapters in laptops (as they plan to), you still have to find spectrum to offer service. A "mobile" WiMax base station can offer fixed, nomadic (a movable receiver that's static while in use), and mobile service.
Fixed WiMax has an easier time of it because it's primarily a point-to-multipoint, mostly line of sight service, and thus the sweet spot of lower frequencies needed for ubiquitous, seamless mobile coverage aren't as critical. There will be WiMax for unlicensed frequencies, and there's potentially some reserved spectrum in many countries and regions, including Europe, that could be put to use for mobile or fixed service.
That's the long answer. The short answer is that Wi-Fi and WiMax will continue down somewhat different paths because they serve different purposes. If WiMax ascends as a better means of faster, metropolitan access, Wi-Fi's importance in that role will dim. But WiMax isn't affordable or sensible as a campus-wide service yet, and it's unlikely to ever metamorphose into a Wi-Fi competitor.
AT&T unleashed a spate of announcements that Om Malik reviews: They'll use satellite broadband (reselling WildBlue which in turn buys service from a satellite operator) to reach rural markets they can't serve with DSL. Project Lightspeed, which is fiber to the node (FTTN) technology, will pass 5.5m low-income homes in 41 markets within three years, which should buy them some credibility in the digital divide bridge building market. (Affording Lightspeed is different than having it pass by your home, of course.) And it's pushing out WiMax, too. Together, Om writes, this could add 11.5m potential homes to AT&T's reach.
WiMax and satellite will help AT&T reach the 20 percent of its existing customer base that they can't get DSL to yet. The Lightspeed service lets them push more heavily for bypassing local TV/cable franchise boards through federal or state legislation as they can show they won't redline poorer customers.
Tropos has frequently been paired with Motorola Canopy for metro-scale networks: However, Motorola has a division that competes with Tropos, their Motomesh line, which was primed by the acquisition of MeshNetworks. Motomesh doesn't support the notion of residential access via mesh-based 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, but they are all about mobility in city-wide networks, using a combination of proprietary and Wi-Fi encodings and 2.4 and 4.9 GHz radios with up to four radios per device. Tropos, for the time being, focuses on single-radio 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi with user access and mesh occurring on the same devices and channels. Both solutions need backhaul.
EarthLink signed a deal that pairs Tropos with Canopy for their first five city deployments, while Tropos included Canopy among their partners as part of their platform development that allows top-to-bottom management and reporting across an ecosystem of wireless devices--from customer premises adapters (CPEs) to backbone equipment.
Canopy competes head-to-head with Alvarion, with both going after similar market segments with similar technology. Both claim a high degree of WiMax feature compatibility in their current product line-ups and both will be fighting for deployments in municipalities that involve hundreds of base stations. This is the first move I'm aware of by Alvarion that specifically ties their equipment to a relationship with Wi-Fi access. The deployments I'm best aware of are direct broadband wireless replacement.
Let's admit upfront that Jeffrey Belk has a vested interest in cellular data networks: But let's look beyond that. Belk is well known as a Qualcomm marketing executive who, two years ago, circulated an interesting account of business travel using cell data and Wi-Fi service along U.S. and international routes. With Wi-Fi, he found spotty service, high cost and no single plan across most networks, and odd requirements. Cell data, while much slower at that point in time, worked consistently and reliably at a predictable cost.
I disputed a number of his particulars because Belk set up a number of strawmen about price, speed, and behavior. But he also made valid factual points, and was a great sport in offering a long rebuttal and additional commentary that I was able to publish on my site.
Qualcomm makes technology that they license to cellular operators to deploy voice and data services worldwide. They also have a large patent portfolio that allows them to derive revenue from some voice and data standards and implementations that they aren't involved with. They're a technology pioneer, and they happen to have Wi-Fi across their corporate campus. While GSM evolution for broadband stalled in the U.S., Verizon and Sprint were able to deploy CDMA (Qualcomm's flagship standard) cell data at much higher speeds using EVDO (Evolution Data Only/Optimized). Cingular is catching up or leapfrogging--time will tell--with the HSDPA standard they just turned on this week to match or exceed EVDO speeds.
Jeffrey and I talked a year ago about revisiting our thesis/response/rebuttal to see what had held up and what hadn't. A lot of commitments (my new son, his broken wrist) held that up.
We still haven't done so, but there's a new target that we have much closer agreement on despite having a substantially different background: I, as a Wi-Fi-obsessed writer and disinterested party; he as a marketing VP focused on the cell industry and its needs.
In his latest informal white paper, Belk takes aim at mobile WiMax, a not-yet-finished standard that's not expected to appear in base stations for deployment until 2007, although all tea leaves I read look like 2008 for any carrier deployment. (My only quibbles have to do with how he compares Wi-Fi usage to cell data usage, and how he boosts ubiquity over speed--but they're not worth going into in length as the quibbles are small compared to agreement.)
While fixed WiMax has been enshrined in an IEEE standard--now known as 802.16-2004, rolling up all the 802.16 standard to Task Group D--mobile WiMax comes out of extensions being finalized in 802.16e. Fixed WiMax offers point-to-multipoint advantages of speed, standardization, and robustness that should allow affordable fixed service for backhaul and some residential areas. The 75 Mbps at 30 miles rate is overstate: 75 Mbps or 30 miles (with many provisos) is more realistic. But it's still got a lot of legs over high-speed, short-range wire-based services for a large class of businesses and residences.
In Seattle, Speakeasy Networks has deployed fixed pre-WiMax technology from Alvarion that allows them to offer 3 or 6 Mbps of bandwidth within a few mile radius from several downtown buildings. TowerStream has had a longer history in point-to-multipoint broadband wireless for business across several cities, and the competition is heating up for this market. (The final WiMax tech will offer better processing and other features to increase range, customers per base station, and other metrics.)
Even with fixed WiMax so far along, the certification expected this month won't be enough, some vendors say, to make carriers interested. Thus, full-scale fixed WiMax deployments may lag until a spring certification update. Wide deployment of fixed WiMax is also a spectrum problem: the first three frequencies profiles are for 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, and 5.8 GHz. The first two sets of frequencies are licensed in Europe and elsewhere and not yet available in the U.S. for general use. (Sprint owns most of 2.5 GHz; 3.5 GHz rules are still being finalized for licensed, quasi-regulated use.)
Mobile WiMax will face even higher hurdles than fixed because the goal is provide Wi-Fi-like coverage over WiMax-like ranges or at least at a lower cost with less complexity than cellular data installations and with greater robustness and more reliability than Wi-Fi clouds.
Belk's paper looks at the hype, process, and future of mobile WiMax with a cellular bias. But I find little I disagree with. For mobile WiMax to succeed over cellular, it has to have more or cheaper spectrum, fewer sites, and fewer real-estate and zoning issues. And--it has to exist, which it doesn't yet. WiMax is consistently cited in mainstream reports as being both fixed and mobile right now. It's not.
One might contend that with Intel backing WiMax in its various forms and committed to shipping a WiMax notebook adapter next year according to several reports, that this might overcome some of the difficulties that the standard will face in reaching critical mass. Absolutely: Intel's backing will help.
But they can ship however many millions of adapters in 2006 and 2007 as they want--carriers have to install thousands and thousands of mobile WiMax base stations to make the standard a working reality. And the basic problem for mobile WiMax is that by the time it can be deployed, will it have speed, ubiquity, and cost advantages over the fast cellular networks that will be available in 2008?
The one key element to WiMax worth mentioning is that it can work in unlicensed spectrum where cellular operators use licensed frequencies. That could decrease the cost of deployment, but it also means that increased use of 5 GHz networks would decrease the effectiveness of mobile WiMax if that band were used.
The FCC's odd plan to allow unlimited licensing with localized planning for 3.5 GHz could provide a nice balance, but it's unclear where that plan stands and whether carriers or large ISPs are interested.
Fixed WiMax has a clear short-term role as a T-1 replacement or supplement and definitely as a fractional T-3 replacement at much lower cost. But mobile WiMax's role is still undefined. Belk's paper is required reading, and comments are, as always, welcome below.