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Sprint, Clearwire rev 4G: What's the shelf life for WiMax?

Sprint has its first 4G handset on the runway---a snazzy HTC created Android device that'll fly---and Clearwire is forging ahead with its rapid expansion. How much staying power does WiMax really have?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Special Report: CTIA Wireless Sprint has its first 4G handset on the runway---a snazzy HTC created Android device that'll fly---and Clearwire is forging ahead with its rapid expansion. WiMax and 4G services are landing in a city near you. It's all good and is generating buzz, but there's this nagging question that hangs amid this 4G euphoria: How much staying power does WiMax really have?

That question has been coming up a good bit in my chats with equipment providers. There's a debate about whether WiMax, the backbone of Sprint and Clearwire's network, is fourth generation wireless service or more like 3.5G-ish. No one really wants to get into the squabble over WiMax, but it's clear there's a much faster technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE), waiting in the wings.

To wit:

  • Clearwire's literature details wireless broadband speeds between 1 to 6 megabits per second (Mbps).
  • LTE, in trials now, will deliver speeds between 6 to 12 Mbps.

Now let's not get too nit-picky. When it comes to wireless broadband you'll take all the speed you can get at the moment so rest assured some folks will hop over to Sprint/Clearwire and that HTC Evo (right). But the leap to WiMax is really more like the change from dial-up access to DSL. It's a nice speed gain, but it's more of an intermediate step to something with more oomph.

Also: HTC Evo 4G (photos)

Sprint and Clearwire obviously don't want folks thinking of WiMax as an intermediate step to LTE nirvana. And their shareholders definitely don't want to hear that WiMax capital spending will just have to evolve to LTE investment in a few short years---investors like to think that the network buildouts will pause at some point. Sprint and Clearwire executives are clearly heading off the WiMax shelf life question at the pass.

Here's Sprint in a statement:

And unlike "concepts" and "lab tests" from other wireless companies, Sprint is the first national wireless carrier to actually test, launch and market 4G technology. The strength of Sprint 4G lies in its all-IP backbone, common architecture and 4G spectrum depth, which give the company considerable flexibility to ensure that customers have a top mobile experience and the most advanced 4G services available well into the future.

Translation: Verizon can talk about LTE, but we're there first. That said, we'll leave the door open to LTE later.

Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow is a bit more direct. In Clearwire's statement, Morrow said (emphasis mine).

"On average, our mobile 4G customers are using more than 7 GB of data per month, and we're very pleased about the implications. Those who want to have a misguided debate about competing 4G radio technologies are missing the bigger picture. To deliver true mobile broadband requires deep spectrum resources and an all-IP network, and Clearwire remains unrivaled on both fronts."

The big question: Is the WiMax vs. LTE debate really misguided? There are billions of dollars of capital spending at stake.

Both WiMax and LTE have the potential to allow people to cut their broadband cords, the LTE offers a bit more promise. LTE could really allow folks to cut their cable modems.

Now WiMax isn't chump change by any means. However, the technology would have looked a lot better when Intel first started pushing it hard in 2004.

In fact, Macquarie Capital analyst Phil Cusick said it's quite possible that WiMax will yield to LTE once the latter technology is implemented by carriers. Cusick noted that it's quite possible that Clearwire hops on the LTE bandwagon too.

Clearwire’s WiMAX approach to 4G allows it first-to-market status in the 4G world, and the flexibility to eventually move to LTE if that ecosystem dominates. We expect Clearwire to market WiMAX devices exclusively for the next 2-3 years, but to add an LTE signal to its offering later, as the LTE device ecosystem matures.

The major selling point to Clearwire's network is that it can support dual mode operation. Bottom line: While Clearwire talks a good WiMax game today it can just as easily play the LTE game if it has to with minimal change to its antennas.


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