Clearwire starts sprinting to LTE

Another nail in WiMAX’s North American coffin was pounded in with the official word that U.S. wireless network provider Clearwire Corp. will soon start testing the competing 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology.

Clearwire continues to build a wholesale mobile WiMAX network for a number of American carriers including Sprint Nextel Corp., a partner in the venture, and it repeated its commitment to WiMAX. Combined they have some 3 million subscribers.

However, faced with the fact that most U.S. carriers are planning to debut LTE-based networks in the next 12 months, I think Clearwire and Sprint had to face the future: There will be more LTE-enabled USB dongles, handsets and tablets than WiMAX-based.

“Since the company expects that a significant number of LTE devices will be available in coming years, Clearwire is conducting technical trials to determine how it could potentially add LTE technology to coexist with WiMAX,” was the way the company put in a news release Wednesday.

But as Stephen Lawson of IDG News noted, Clearwire — which also on Wednesday announced it lost US$125 million in the second quarter — has been hinting for several months it is open to adopting LTE.

It will work with dual-mode 4G chip maker Beceem and other partners to “determine the best methods for enabling end-user devices to take advantage of a potential multi-mode WiMax/LTE network,” the company said.

So it seems that Sprint has lost its gamble on a technology that came to market before LTE, but came up short on an ecosystem. In addition to WiMAX dongles for laptops, Sprint has only one WiMAX handset to sell, the HTC Evo,which has been in short supply.

U.S. carriers committed to LTE won’t even have a handset until next year. Meanwhile Verizon Wireless, expected to be the first to commercial market with an LTE offering this year, will do with dongles, as will MetroPCS and AT&T.

Verizon’s 3G technology was CDMA/EVDO, the same as Sprint, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada and Telus Corp. When it came time to decide on 4G, the Canadians played it conservative and shifted to UMTS/HSPA as a stepping stone to LTE.

Verizon gambled on a jump straight to LTE, while Sprint bet on WiMAX.

Several hundred million dollars later, Sprint and Clearwire are acknowledging they were wrong. Now they have to hope equipment makers see value in creating dual mode devices so existing subscribers aren’t left in the cold.

Robert Syputa, a senior analyst with Maravedis Inc., a wireless broadband industry research firm, told me Wednesday that Clearwire’s network covers some 62 million people in the U.S. Still, that isn’t good enough for Motorola, Nokia or Apple Inc. to build WiMAX handsets. The subscriber numbers speak louder.

“You could put on the fanciest dog and pony show you want to and even come out with equipment for WiMAX and you’re not going to get the subscribers to change their minds at this late stage of the game.”


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