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Sprint, Clearwire Expand WiMAX Footprint

Despite rumors that WiMAX wont survive in the United States, Clearwire Corp. and Sprint-Nextel Corp. continue to expand the reach of real mobile broadband with the launch of 4G WiMAX service in five additional markets on Monday: Jacksonville, Fla.; Wilmington, Del.; Stockton and Modesto, Calif.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. Later this year, WiMAX will launch in Boston, Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

The two operators are continuing the “network of networks” practice theyve been following, with Sprint, the majority stakeholder in Clearwire, acting as an MVNO on Clearwires network and launching service under a separate brand. Whereas Clearwire positions the service as a home broadband replacement or DSL on the run for, say, first responders, Sprints service is sold as more of a next-gen cellular experience, with 4G smartphones added to the device mix in addition to modems.

The WiMAX network now serves 49 markets and covers 51 million people with average mobile download speeds of 3 to 6mbps, with bursts over 10mbps thats more than 10 times faster than 3G speeds. Sprint and Clearwire also collaborate for in-fill coverage, with Clearwire this time acting as an MVNO for Sprints EV-DO Rev. a 3G network. The two both offer dual-mode 4G/3G modems and other devices for seamless nationwide roaming.

In accordance with more 4G rolling out, the device story is getting richer as well. Sprint recently launched the Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless, where users can create a 4G hotspot on the road or at home. On the smartphone front, Sprints HTC EVO 4G is America’s first 3G/4G wireless smartphone. While the EVO is currently out of stock thanks to components shortages, the carrier will soon ship the Samsung Epic handset to slake the consumer demand.

Clearwire has hoped to take a market niche approach to offering WiMAX, so that many different brands can serve a variety of customer segments without trampling on each other. Meanwhile, the awareness of WiMAX grows with each new partner. Thus, Clearwires other investors can leverage the network for MVNOs as well: Both Comcast and Time-Warner Cable have done so regionally, in order to shore up their triple play competitive advantage by offering home TV and broadband subscribers access to content on the go. Retail giant Best Buy last week got in on the action, announcing that it plans to resell Clearwires 4G service under its own brand, the Best Buy Connect service. Best Buy Connect launched just about a month ago with rebranded 3G data service running on the Sprint-Nextel network. The 4G option will roll out beginning in 2011.

The WiMAX expansion adds fuel to the LTE vs. WiMAX fire. Recent comments by Sprint executives, including CEO Dan Hesse, suggested that Sprint is looking to a cap and grow” strategy in light of LTEs momentum among incumbents and Tier 1 operators globally, looking to move over to LTE as its 4G technology of choice. That story popped amid Russian WiMAX operator Yota’s announcement to roll out LTE, and the news that Indian operators that have just won spectrum at auction are eschewing their previous interest in WiMAX in favor of LTE.

Also adding to the discussion is the fact that moving to LTE would not actually be that painful; Monica Paolini at Senza Fili Consulting notes that WiMAX and LTE share most of the RAN and core network, so the transition path from WiMAX to LTE will be smoother than the transition path from HSPA to LTE. The trends toward RAN-agnostic base station platforms that can accommodate multiple wireless interfaces and toward user devices that support multiple interfaces further facilitate this transition.


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