CTIA Wireless: Clearwire promises broader coverage, faster speeds with WiMax

LTE is the belle of the CTIA Wireless ball in Las Vegas this week. With wireless operators set to deploy the 4G network beginning this year--starting with Verizon Wireless here in the U.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Special Report: CTIA Wireless

LTE is the belle of the CTIA Wireless ball in Las Vegas this week. With wireless operators set to deploy the 4G network beginning this year--starting with Verizon Wireless here in the U.S.--many believe the battle to replace 3G is already over. But Clearwire isn't giving up on WiMax, its competing 4G network, which is already available in a handful of cities and backed by heavyweights such as Intel, Google, Comcast and Sprint.

To get a jump on the LTE news coming out of the show, which starts today, Clearwire made several announcements including new WiMax devices, more details of its plans to build-out its network in 2010, and enhancements to the network that it claims will significantly boost throughput speeds. I'll be meeting with Clearwire here in Las Vegas later this week, but in the meantime, here are the highlights.

Among the new devices is Dell's Inspiron Mini 10 netbook, which will be available starting April 1 with an integrated WiMax modem for $250 after rebates. Clearwire says there are now some 30 laptops and netbooks that offer WiMax modems--many of them based on Intel's combination WiFi and WiMax chipset. In addition, Clearwire also said it would release a mobile WiFi access point with an integrated WiMax modem. It currently sells a Clear Spot ($140) that requires a separate WiMax USB modem. Like Novatel's MiFi, the Clear Spot should be a nice solution for products such as the WiFi-only version of Apple's iPad, assuming you have coverage in your area.

Speaking of network coverage, Clearwire reiterated its goal of expanding its network to reach up to 120 million people by the end of 2010, and added some new cities to its to-do list including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Salt Lake City. Clearwire had previously announced that it would bring WiMax to parts of New York City, Houston, Boston, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Denver, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay Area among other locations. Most of these won't be available until the end of 2010, though Houston should go live in a few weeks. The Clear service is currently available in 27 markets in the U.S. (you can check WiMax coverage here), and it is also sold through Sprint, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

All of that will eventually put a heavy load on the network. Clearwire said its users already average 7GB of data per month at average speeds of 3 to 6 megabits per second (Mbps), which is comparable to DSL. To handle this load, Clearwire announced that it will double the number of transmitters and receivers at each of its cell sites and increase it backhaul capacity. This will boost throughput by 20 to 30 percent, and will eventually support speeds of a gigabit per second in high-density, high-traffic markets, Clearwire promised. By comparison, LTE has a peak theoretical speed of 100 Mbps downlink and 50 Mbps uplink, though the actual data rates in "real-world environments" are more like 5- to 12Mbps downlink and 2- to Mbps uplink, according to Verizon Wireless (release here).

If there's one thing Clearwire and the traditional wireless operators agree on, it is that wireless data will continue to put serious strain on current 3G and emerging 4G networks. Clearwire argues that, unlike its competitors, it has the spectrum and an all-IP network with efficient microwave backhaul to handle this explosion in wireless data.

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