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And we're off to the races! Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are working on a $12 billion deal to merge WiMAX operations, signaling the start of fourth-generation WWAN rollouts--coming to some towns this year.
Dubbed Clearwire Corp., the new entity is the first big-money bet on Mobile WiMAX, the nominal successor to 3G voice/data networks derived from CDMA technology. And of course, it wouldn't be a horse race with only one horse. The competitor in this case is LTE, the 4G successor to GSM-based networks, already the principal alternative to CDMA. LTE is being embraced by AT&T and Verizon Wireless--the latter of which, oddly enough, is America's largest CDMA network operator.
Years of 4G jawboning are over--OK, that never really ends, but now comes some serious jockeying for position. Network building is expensive, so don't expect this race to be, um, a sprint; it'll be more like a marathon of city-by-city rollouts that ends in a photo finish between WiMAX and LTE--after some realignments in today's cellular alliances. The re-incarnation of a failed attempt last year, Clearwire has powerful partners this time around. Besides cellular pioneer Craig McCaw and WiMAX chip-maker Intel, some of the nation's largest cable broadband providers--Bright House Networks, Comcast and Time Warner--are, apparently, ready to cut the cord. Verizon's own network switch may have been influenced by Vodafone, its European partner, which was already committed to LTE.
Clearwire does have an early lead based on Sprint's success testing its Xohm WiMAX network in Chicago and Washington, DC. It has also garnered product support from some noteworthy device makers like Samsung, whose E100 PC Card and Q1 Ultra Premium UMPC were tested on Xohm. Nokia is also taking orders for a $500 WiMAX edition of its N810 Internet Tablet, and Everex plans the CloudBook Max, a Xohm version of its 2.2-pound Windows Vista mininotebook, early next year. By that time, Asus should be shipping a Linux handheld using Intel's WiMAX technology. Further out, Intel's Moorestown next-generation platform will produce WiMAX-connected mobile internet devices.
Sprint says commercial WiMAX rollouts will start this year in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, DC. But no need to cancel your 3G subscription just yet; you'll get plenty of notice when WiMAX reaches your neck of the woods.
If you're already a cutting-edge mobile user whose data travels over an EV-DO or UMTS/HSPA network, you may be getting data rates of 400Kbps to 700Kbps under ideal conditions. But 4G (WiMAX or LTE) opens up a 2Mbps to 5Mbps internet pipe initially, with mind-boggling bandwidth down the road. We're talking big data dumps, mobile video and TV broadcasts, improved indoor phone coverage and the kind of brisk and graphical web browsing that has made Apple's iPhone so popular. But iPhone is limited by its 300-foot Wi-Fi connection. Once deployed, WiMAX will deliver a similar user experience within a 6- to 30-mile radius.
We can expect higher productivity at lower prices with 4G. It may even simplify your life. But will it result in a single communications standard or fewer nonsensical telecom acronyms? Nah--and if it did, it would be more expensive. Competition is good.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.