Blog Post

Drive-By WiMAX at CES

After talking earlier this week about the speed bumps that U.S. WiMAX deployment faces, it only seemed proper to take a ride in the WiMAX-equipped vehicles that Motorola and Intel revved up at CES.

I will geek out a bit after the jump, but the bottom line is that Wednesday’s brief broadband cruise provided public proof that mobile WiMAX works pretty much just like extended-range Wi-Fi, or maybe more like a cellular 3G network, does. But there are still too many loose ends — including incomplete equipment rollouts at the chip and device level, and uncertain provider plans — to guarantee widespread WiMAX availability in this country anytime soon.

On the optimist side, it is always fun to find new technologies that let you make Skype calls from a car while watching “Hillary crying” videos on YouTube. Sometimes broadband reporting is fun.

The Chevy Suburbans done up in Intel blue and white were true Geek-Pimp My Ride — opening the back hatch revealed a desktop WiMAX CPE with its antennas taped in an upright position. The signal went from there to some hard-wired gadgets (including a GPS-like display in the dash) and a D-Link Wi-Fi router, which made the Suburban a mobile hot spot. There was also a big battery pack to keep it all hummin.’ Cool.

To support the demos, Intel and Motorola had built a small, four-tower WiMAX network that was used to supply bandwidth not just to the tour cars but also to a BMW race-car promo area (where WiMAX-powered UMPCs were reportedly in operation) as well as the Motorola and Intel show-floor booths. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the best Speedtest.Net mark I could record was a 427 Kbps download — with the network dropping before the upload stat could be recorded.

In fine PR fashion, the Motorola rep that came along for the ride said the network drops “showed that the demo was real.” Nice save.

But the short geographical boundary of the drive — we didn’t go much farther than a one-block loop around the Vegas convention center — didn’t do much to prove one of WiMAX’s touted promises, that of multiple-mile coverage zones. Since a lot of the performance of WiMAX will depend on how robust an operator decides to build out a network (just like cell phones), initial performance mileage may vary.

While I did appreciate the irony of making a Skype call on a network using spectrum loaned by Clearwire (in the past, Clearwire was not so amenable to the use of outside VoIP providers), I have to say I didn’t do or see anything I couldn’t already do with the Verizon EVDO PC card I carry around, provided someone else was doing the driving.

In the end, the demo really wasn’t about car computing (though there may someday be some mobile WiMAX devices that specialize in such tasks), but more about showing that mobile WiMAX is no longer just a theory. But while Chevy Suburbans may be big enough to handle speed bumps, it’s gonna take a lot of gas for the long drive toward a mass-market WiMAX future.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.

7 Responses to “Drive-By WiMAX at CES”

  1. Get serious. How long did it take to get the CellCo networks to work properly? They still only provide Narrowabdn data consistently.
    The CellCo are so afraid of the potential this new auction presents they will spend $4-10Billion to gain new 700Mhz spectrum to upgrade their Narrowband Cell Networks to handle real Broadband.
    What will they do when these new Broadband Wireless (WISP) Providers deploy a WiMAX based 700Mhz service in the market in the 2009-2010 time frame??
    The only real issue WiMAX will have near term, due to the use of the 2.5Ghz spectrum (lots of bandwidth but poor penetration of structures and Foliage)is its ability to offer a Nationwide (which has to include Rural markets) carrier grade service.
    This becomes real with 700Mhz and the CellCO know it and will do everything in their power (deep pockets) to make sure no serious contender for a Nationwide License wins any spectrum. Local providers will bid and win CMA based Licensed spectrum and provide some serious competition in their local markets.
    The CellCo also fear the new White Space spectrum the FCC will allow to go forward as Unlicensed after they rake in their $$$Billions in the 700Mhz Auction.
    This is where Google will focus its efforts over the next few months-they really do not plan to win any 700Mhz, but will make sure the Upper Band C Block meets its minimum $4.9 to keep the License Open. With the White Space spectrum they finally see a way to gain access to (Bypass the incumbents) the Last Mile and gain access to the customers with out the burden of the incumbents.
    There are at least 3 vendors producing radios that will operate at 700Mhz as well as 400Mhz and some already are looking at including the WiMAX feature sets in these devices.

    Jim A. (aka Jacomo)

  2. Doesn’t sound any better than EV-DO. Then again, why would it be. Both 4g, both relatively similar spectral efficiency. Overall, big difference on the infrastructure side, but both eventually OFDM. The real difference would be that WiMax would be vertically dis-aggregated gear and independent CPE. But now with Verizon and Sprint’s recent annoucements about loosening the belt on controlled/locked CPE, that factor may not be as important. That leaves vertically dis-appregated service provider gear as the real distinguishing factor. But that’s an infrastructure play, not a service play. As services go, I don’t see the difference between what you COULD DO with WiMax vs. what you COULD do with other 4G.

  3. I had Clearwire for 2 years. I mounted it in my truck and used it as a mobile internet for doing home and office network jobs. It was nice when it did work because while a network was down I had internet service at my site but Clearwire was not very good overall. If I was trying to use it while driving (as a passenger), it would drop signal all of the time. The signal was no where near good enough to be consistent. I have an AT&T USB card now and it works 10 times better. The signal almost never drops around town and it is about the same speeds. This whole WiMAX idea is nothing new and it’s not going to work using those horrible Motorola modems.