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Of the top ten U.S. wireless network operators, only one is deploying WiMAX at 2.5 GHz and it did not show up to bid, nor did Clearwire

WiMAX at 700 MHz?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Even before the winners have been determined in the 700-MHz auctions, the WiMAX Forum is moving forward with WiMAX for 700 MHz. Why? Because 700 MHz may, in fact, become widely used for broadband not only in North America but in other parts of the world as well.


Logically, there are only two ways WiMAX would be deployed in 700 MHz in the United States. If Google were to win the C block nationwide, it could decide to use WiMAX-M, which will have been finished (perhaps) and will support FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) by the time the spectrum is available in 2009 or 2010. But I am willing to bet that even in this case, Google would stick with a 4G standard that promises to become prevalent worldwide and that sure looks like LTE (Long Term Evolution), which is already undergoing tests in various parts of the world. UMB might have had a chance had it not been for Verizon's announcement that it will be moving to LTE for its fourth-generation network.


The only other scenario I see is if someone ended up with the shared public/private sector D block and convinced the first responder community that WiMAX was the way to go. However, this would be a real disservice to the first responder community. One of the reasons behind the D block is to drive down the cost of first responder radios, and that will only happen with the scale that comes from a worldwide standard and millions or billions of units deployed.


There might be a slight chance that an A or B block start-up might choose WiMAX for a specific area but, again, without scale it is a non-starter. The likely scenario is that mostly incumbents will go home with spectrum at the end of the auction, and they will use the 4G technology that is part of their overall roadmap. We do know for certain that there will be chipsets that include both CDMA and GSM/UMTS/LTE on the market, and we know that there will be significant volumes of these chips for device prices to start out being reasonable and then driven lower.


Of the top ten U.S. wireless network operators, only one is deploying WiMAX at 2.5 GHz and it did not show up to bid, nor did Clearwire, unless it was very successful in hiding under another company name. WiMAX believers in the United States are not even bidding on the spectrum.


As for the smaller companies bidding on the A and B block licenses, wouldn't they be likely to want to differentiate their own network from others by using WiMAX? Perhaps, if they are new operators, but if they are existing operators and buy some 700-MHz spectrum for increased capacity or to expand their footprint, it is likely that they will stick to their existing technology choice and not try to mix in a second technology. In fact, if any 3G networks are built on 700 MHz in the United States, they will come from smaller companies that come away with some A and/or B spectrum to enhance their existing positions or territories. I just don't see any way for WiMAX to end up being deployed in the 700-MHz spectrum in the United States.


Getting back to the C and D blocks, even if Google decided to build a WiMAX network on the C block, remember that it is only 22 MHz of spectrum (11 X 11 MHz), which is not enough to build a network that can deliver broadband services to millions of customers. How many millions could make use of 22 MHz of spectrum can be calculated, but I don't believe it would be anywhere near enough for a decent return on investment.


Unless the D block is won by a new player, the chance of it being turned into a WiMAX shared system with the first responders is slim to none. If Frontline were still in contention, I would say perhaps but, again, I believe that would be a complete disservice to the first responder community for many reasons.


It made sense in Europe to enable UMTS to operate in the 900-MHz band, just as it made sense for CDMA2000 EV-DO to be used in the 450-MHz band in some parts of the world. They are technologies that quickly moved to critical mass. New devices on 900-MHz UMTS will still be required to work on GSM in 900, 1800 and 2100 MHz at the very least, and there will be economies of scale for these products too, along with demand right out of the shoot.


Perhaps WiMAX on 700 MHz would make sense if winners plan to use it for white space, license-free systems (the space between TV stations in each city), but from what I hear, those tests are not going particularly well.


I find it amusing that the wireless world has been fighting about harmonization for many years, yet many believe having more than one technology available is good for the industry. I agree, but I also believe that you must choose your options based on where you can make money with a technology and who will adopt it. In this case, if any of the bidders opt for WiMAX as their technology strategy, I will be extremely surprised!


Andrew M. Seybold

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

DavidĀ Boettger - 02/26/2008 19:58:48

"[E]ven if Google decided to build a WiMAX network on the C block, remember that it is only 22 MHz of spectrum (11 X 11 MHz), which is not enough to build a network that can deliver broadband services to millions of customers."

This seems to be a recurring theme on this forum. This question involves three variables, not two: data rate/traffic load (two sides of the same coin), spectrum, and transmitter density. It's not accurate to state that X MHz of spectrum "isn't enough". You can serve an arbitrarily large number of users with an arbitrarily small amount of spectrum given a sufficiently high transmitter density. Case in point: MetroPCS has done an impressive job of serving tons of users with 10 MHz -- and in some markets, 5 MHz -- of spectrum.

Furthermore, of 11 x 11 MHz of spectrum isn't enough for Google to build out a WiMAX network, then it's not enough for them to build out an LTE network, either.

And as for whether LTE will become THE next generation ("4G" is a definition-less term) wireless technology, I would point out that 3GPP has a funny habit of being one-upped by other technologies (EV-DO, Rev A., FlashOFDM, WiMAX) even as they are congratulating themselves for having finally developed THE universal wireless access solution. Will nothing better come along before LTE finally hits the streets? I wouldn't bet on it.