Clearwire Touts WiMAX’s Head Start

IT EXPO — WiMAX’s advantages over other broadband wireless technologies, specifically Long Term Evolution (LTE), lie in its established profile, its shorter pathway to consumer electronics devices, and its stable intellectual-property underpinnings, said Ali Tabassi, senior vice president of global ecosystem and standards for Clearwire (CLWR), in a keynote address at IT EXPO in Los Angeles.

Clearwire on Monday said it has launched WiMAX service in 10 new markets, including Amarillo, Texas; Boise, Idaho; and Bellingham, Wash. Formed from the merger of Sprint-Nextel’s (S) Xohm unit and the well-funded startup created by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, and offering service under the “Clear” brand, the company will cover more than 80 markets, comprising 120 million people, by the end of next year, Tabassi said.

Clearwire’s build-out plans have been pushed back several times, and the company has faced financing hurdles over the past year as the global financial crisis has made capital scarce. What’s more, major wireless carriers including Verizon Wireless have lined up behind the rival technology LTE. Earlier this year a report from from equity research firm ThinkEquity LLC predicted that Clearwire would offer service in only nine markets by year’s end. The company has forged ahead, however, and Tabassi laid out the case for WiMAX to the IT EXPO audience today.

Unlike LTE, which is “still in labs,” claimed Tabassi, WiMAX is a “proven mature technology” that will follow an adoption path similar to Wi-Fi: “We have a better opportunity to get into consumer electronics, and into mobile computing,” Tabassi asserted, because many devices with WiMAX capability embedded are reaching the market. Over the next year, the WiMAX Forum expects 100 or more WiMAX-ready devices to hit retail shelves.

What’s more, because of backward compatibility issues, LTE will carry with it the potential for intellectual property disputes that don’t encumber WiMAX, Tabassi claimed. Clearwire is offering an end-user device, called “ClearSpot,” that connects to the WiMAX system via a Wi-Fi link. The company also plans to add voice calling to its offerings, with a “Clear Voice Adapter” that connects a landline phone to the Clearwire home modem for VoIP service.

Not everyone agrees. “I don’t think he really said that much,” one service provider attendee commented after the Tabassi address.

In fact, it’s likely that LTE and WiMAX, which each have strengths and weaknesses in particular environments, will coexist for some time. WiMAX, for example, is effective in dispersed rural environments, like the American West and emerging economies, while LTE, with its big cellular providers, may take off in denser urban areas first.

In a research note on Clearwire earlier this year, ABI Research Inc. analyst Phil Solis wrote, “Even if they do not get additional capital, they will have enough to get started in the current climate.” ABI forecasted a striking 4,500 percent growth in subscriber revenue this year for global WiMAX services.

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