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Can Sprint and Clearwire Deliver A True WiMAX Network?
The partnership between Sprint and Clearwire to develop a true,
coast to coast WiMAX network is an interesting development in the
WiMAX saga. Clearly there's a lot of potential; Intel has comitted
to include WiMAX into future revisions of its Centrino wireless
chipset. There are handset vendors lined up, Nokia has committed to
develop handsets and Samsung has demonstrated mobile WiMAX handsets
based on WiBro in Korea (how difficult it will be to modify these to
work on Sprint's network remains to be seen).
A true, nation wide, WiMAX network would allow consumers to use
their WiMAX device coast to coast, which is a positive development.
However, it's not at all clear that a nation wide WiMAX network will
truly embrace the Google / FCC ideal of "any application, any
device" that's been proposed for the 700MHz spectrum. First, it's
not clear at all what the distribution model for WiMAX devices will
be. Given that the WiMAX device ecosystem will be small at first
and subsidies will be required to get things moving, my bet will be
that you wont be able to buy just any WiMAX device off the shelf and
use it with the Sprint/Clearwire network. Rather, devices will be
marketed and sold through Sprint and Clearwire, continuing the
cellular device distribution model here in the US. In fact, because
WiMAX is so new, it will take some time before other distribution
models develop for consumers to purchase devices from. So much for
the "any device" part of the model.
As for applications, 3G operators today (including Sprint) have
placed usage restrictions that are, in part to protect the carriers'
own content distribution mechanisms (they'd much rather you buy
video clips from them then download them from YouTube) but are also
designed to help protect the network. If some were to start trying
to push 256kbps MP3 or video streams via their 3G connection, then
users who are trying to check e-mail wouldn't be able to. Hence why
applications like streaming video are generally forbidden in carriers' TOS.
While WiMAX is arguably more spectraly efficient and offers more
bandwidth per users (Sprint is targeting about 2 - 4 Mbps as
realistic performance), high bandwidth applications like high
quality audio and video could saturate WiMAX cells in dense user
environments. Will Sprint or Clearwire put caps or restrictions on
what users can do? We don't know, but we can bet we'll see usage
restrictions at some point. So much for the "any application" part
of the model.
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