It seemed like the winter was dominated by LTE news and plans, while WiMAX took a back seat. But today with the first week of Spring, clwr and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S, news, filings) struck back with a one two punch that was very powerful even if it was largely anticipated. Clearwire added a bundle of new major cities that will see WiMAX deployments this year: Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City. Next in line of course is Houston, which will officially roll out in a few weeks.
Clearwire also has been making the point that the success of various wireless broadband offering depends less on the LTE/WiMAX war of words and more about scaling the bandwidth itself. Their own users are already using 7Gb per month on average, and they want that to rise – not fall. Even as they are racing to cover 120M people by the end of the year, they are rolling out capacity upgrades at each cell site to add some 20-30% to users speed limits and plan to increase total backhaul capacity this year by 250%. They are clearly throwing down the gauntlet over bandwidth restrictions and application limitations, drawing a contrast between their own willingness to enable customers to burn lots of bits while the competition obsesses over details like matching those bits to dollars.
Simultaneously, Sprint has finally unveiled its highly anticipated 3G/4G phone: the HTC EVO 4G, which runs Google’s Android and will allow customers to access Clearwire’s WiMAX network the 27 markets online so far and hence experience speeds an order of magnitude faster than in the past. The phone also can double as a mobile hotspot, enabling up to 8 wi-fi devices around it. Of course, price, style and ease of use mean a great deal and the market will have to see if people like the new phone – I’ll leave the actual reviews to the gadget blogs. However, if it does what it purports to do, then Sprint just might ride it out of the downward spiral they have been struggling to break free of. There will likely be more such phones to come, with the first LTE handsets still a year away.
Of course, a plethora of WiMAX enabled phones will force Clearwire to make good on its open bandwidth promises – which are obviously easy to make when users are still relatively few. After watching the iPhone bring AT&T’s 3G network to its knees, it will be interesting to see how a WiMAX network handles a similar surge. While its competitors are focused on pricing services profitably to a huge existing user base, Clearwire is engaged in a land grab – they have very different priorities and thus will address demands on their network very differently. Clearwire simply can’t afford to get bogged down, or they will never reach the scale they need – and thus they will probably spend whatever it takes to keep the bandwidth flowing and the buzz going. Keep going, just don’t look down!
Purists will no doubt continue to point out that Clearwire’s WiMAX isn’t truly 4G according to formal definitions. But marketing will be marketing, and the media is completely happy to back them up on it. It will never seem right to call something so new by old names. Using the term 4G attracts more eyeballs, and thus the media will forever just run with it.
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