Revisiting WiMAXMonday, October 01, 2007
With muni-Wi-Fi systems on the ropes, there is renewed interest in WiMAX in the United States. The two largest 2.5-GHz spectrum holders, Sprint and Clearwire, have teamed up to jointly build out the Nationwide WiMAX footprint and promote the global development of WiMAX-based services. (This and other quotes are taken from the Sprint Ahead Quarterly Performance Scorecard produced by the Sprint Industry Analyst Relations Team.)
Further down in this section of the report is a statement that the FCC Commissioners should read before finalizing the 700-MHz Open Access ruling: Sprint and Clearwire intend to provide consumers, businesses, and distributors across the country with access to the Open Internet over a robust wireless broadband network. This means we will have an open access network in the United States, and Google is now a part of it as well (see below).
The last half of that sentence is also informative because it says, that is being designed to deliver comparable speeds to existing wireline broadband services. This should be interesting when it comes time to run tests over the network, and it says to me that my tests should be run against DSL and cable services and not against existing 3G wireless networks. (For the record, today as I write this, my DSL speed is 2.8 Mbps down to my computer and 736 up.)
Next is this statement: The Federal Government and public safety agencies, which rely heavily on wireless networks during times of crisis, are expected to benefit from the mobility afforded through the WiMAX network to access their Internet-based communications, applications and content. I wonder why, then, we need a shared segment of the 700-MHz spectrum for commercial and public safety use. (Written with tongue in cheek.)
Sprint and Clearwire say they will have 100 million POPs covered by the end of 2008, with seamless roaming in place. The total network appears to be one that will cover 300 million POPs (185 million for Sprint and 115 million for Clearwire). Since the U.S. population is just over 301 million today, this is an ambitious network goal that will bring broadband to virtually all of rural America if my math is correct.
One of the most interesting plans for Sprint, as well as Clearwire, is the stated objective of providing dual-mode CDMA-WiMAX services. This means that Clearwire will be able to sell CDMA services in its territories as well, providing both companies with the ability to do some bundling. I wonder about dual-mode devices here. At the moment, they will require dual chipsets or someone will have to come forward to build a combined chipset. Intel has expressed no interest in building anything on a CDMA network, only incorporating WiMAX into its notebook chipsets. Still, the ability to bundle CDMA and WiMAX would enable both Sprint and Clearwire to offer some interesting combinations of services. I wonder how many notebook vendors will purchase a WiMAX-capable chipset from Intel and then add CDMA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to the notebooks as well. The trend in the notebook world seems to be moving toward offering a worldwide wireless broadband notebook that includes both CDMA and UMTS on a common chipset―one SKU that can be shipped virtually anywhere in the world and placed on a network.
Moving to the next section of the Scorecard, we come to the Sprint and Google collaboration on WiMAX Mobile Internet Services. This collaboration was announced on July 26 of this year, prior to the FCC's 700-MHz Report and Order. The stated object is to bring WiMAX mobile Internet customers search, interactive communications, and social networking tools through a new mobile portal. The collaboration between Sprint and Google will help spur new mobility and location-assisted services as Sprint untethers Internet access for consumers, business and government customers.
The next few paragraphs go on to talk about the services that will be offered including Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Talk services, and that customers will have access to the Internet including browsing, music, video, TV and on-demand products.
All in all, this is an ambitious project that entails building a new network on 2.5 GHz, convincing companies to produce consumer and business devices for the network, coming up with dual CDMA/WiMAX-capable devices and working with Google on a portal to deliver the Internet wirelessly. Sprint says it will have Chicago, Baltimore and Washington DC up and running in test mode by the end of this year. Interesting choice of cities, as I recall, they were also the first cities to have analog service trials many years ago.
If Sprint and Clearwire can deliver on these promises, we will have an open access network available to all who live in the United States including multiple devices, full access to the Internet and the ability to buy airtime at wholesale prices and resell it. If this is all going to happen, why does the FCC need to impose the open access rule on the 700-MHz spectrum?
Here we have full open access―not only what the FCC mandated, but full open access―and it was not mandated by the FCC. It was decided upon by the companies building out the network and they determined what they believe will work best in order to launch this new network and services.
The only issue I have with the entire idea is that the prime focus of this network is to extend the Internet wirelessly. That means, to me, I can expect the same experience I now have on my desktop on a device that runs on this network. Yes, there will be a location component that will add value for searches and finding things we are looking for, but other than that, it will be the same old Internet only wirelessly.
There is, in my mind, a huge difference between delivering the Internet wirelessly and the wireless Internet. Sprint and Clearwire, along with Google, Intel and others, believe that delivering the Internet wirelessly is what we all want and that we will flock to this new network, purchase a multiplicity of devices and be content to connect to the network and access the Internet.
Many of the devices being contemplated are larger than phones but smaller than laptops and are being called ultra-mobile devices or something like that. They are too big to fit into our pocket or on our belt but can be carried perhaps in a larger purse or briefcase. They are not what I consider to be unconscious carry devices, meaning that I will have to make a decision each time I leave my home or office as to whether I want to take the device with me.
Unfortunately, most of the existing wireless operators seem to be thinking along the same lines as Sprint and Clearwire: High-speed wireless broadband equals the Internet delivered wirelessly. Yes, there are some differences, as I have pointed out before. Yahoo! has done a credible job with its wireless search, a number of business applications are available with their own user interface and companies such as Action Engine are delivering content without having to resort to a browser.
I have made this point before, but the difference between the desktop Internet and the mobile Internet is significant. When mobile, we dont have as much time to navigate around and find what we want and need. Networks are becoming smarter, as are devices, and now we need smart applications that can go out and find information in the background without us having to drive them each step of the way.
I should be able to use information that is already in my device to be able to check the status of a flight, the weather in my destination city, the nearest movie theater that is playing a specific movie and anything else I want to find. Search engines are wonderful inventions and Google certainly has the best of them today, but while it is smart, it is not smart enough for when I am mobile. It needs to be context and location aware and be able to work in the background, not as an application I have to open.
Remember, too, that the Internet community, led by Microsoft, is heading toward Web 2.0 at warp speed. Part of premise of Web 2.0 is that our applications and data will reside on the network and not on our devices. This might make sense to some people, but I dont trust either the Internet or wireless networks to always be there when I need to access my information. In the world of wireless, we are still in what I refer to as an always on, sometimes connected environment―more connected today, but still not always connected.
This means I want my applications and data on my device. I don't want to go back to the days of the dumb terminal connected to a mainframe model. My wireless device is powerful, it has a lot of storage and a great screen, and it is capable of storing what I want and need.
Sprint and Clearwire have to prove themselves, their network and their business model, but it won't be long before we find out how well the network performs. The data speeds listed on the Clearwire site are not earth shattering and today my EV-DO Rev A-equipped notebook averages faster speeds. I realize that the stated speeds are for their older equipment, so we shall wait and see what WiMAX mobile can do in a real-world environment.
Meanwhile, we will have to accept that the wireless industry wants to bring us the Internet wirelessly but, thankfully, there are some companies out there working on a real, smart, wireless Internet and I, for one, can't wait!
Andrew M. Seybold