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Clearwire's Big Bet on Our Broadband Addiction

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Despite doubts about Clearwire’s ability to compete against the coming rival 4G network of Verizon (s vz) and AT&T (s t), its users are apparently pleased with the service. Mike Sievert, chief commercial officer at Clearwire (s clwr), said the company’s mobile users (those on laptops and dongles outside the home) consume more than an average of 7GB per month of data. That’s a shocking amount of mobile data consumption, especially when all we’re hearing is how scarce spectrum is and how operators can’t keep up with the mobile demand.

But slaking that thirst for mobile data, and doing it cheaply, underlies Clearwire’s overall strategy. For now, that’s why it’s bet on WiMAX, but WiMAX plays only a small role in Clearwire’s cost benefits, which means that it’s not beholden to the technology after 2011, when an agreement with Intel (s clwr) that kept Clearwire and WiMAX together will expire. Sievert was coy when asked directly about the Long Term Evolution standard that the two largest U.S. carriers are experimenting with, but rather than obsess about the radio access technology, let’s look closer at the real disruption Clearwire offers.

Sievert said it cost Clearwire “somewhere in the mid-$20 range” per person to build out its WiMAX network, an estimate that relies on several things, from the cost of the spectrum to the number of the towers Clearwire needs to deploy. In contrast, analyst Chris King at investment bank Stifel Nicholas, has put the per-person cost near $20 for Verizon’s rival LTE network build.

But it’s once the network gets humming when Sievert believes Clearwire starts looking good, both because it will be cheaper to send bits across and enable the company to provide more capacity to data-hungry users, something that may play a larger role as rivals introduce tiered pricing plans, as both Verizon and AT&T have talked about doing.

Sievert credits the all-IP architecture of the Clearwire network for its ability to deliver bits cheaply, pointing out that Verizon and AT&T both will have more expensive legacy networks to run that include equipment for dealing with circuit-switched voice. In the short term this is an advantage for the LTE crew, because they can offer data across their 4G networks and keep voice on 3G — ensuring a consistent level of quality.

But long term, Sievert thinks the advantage is Clearwire’s, especially after it introduces handsets in 2011 that will use Sprint’s (s S) 3G network for voice (see video) and will then transition to VoIP. Sievert did not give a time frame for the all-4G phone. Eventually, however the LTE providers will also move to VoIP but aren’t likely to abandon their older networks for decades.

But the biggest advantage is Clearwire’s deep spectrum resources. If nothing else, the last few months has focused the tech world’s attention on the scarcity of available mobile spectrum. Well, Clearwire has a lot of it — about 150 MHz in many markets, while the other major carriers claim just two-thirds or less of that amount.

It also has 30 MHz chunks of spectrum that it can use for WiMAX, while Verizon, for example, has 20 MHz for LTE. Spectrum can be used to increase both speed and capacity, so while Clearwire’s current speeds of 3-6 Mbps down aren’t going to compare to Verizon’s 5-12 Mbps for LTE, Sievert says Clearwire could allocate another 10 MHz to match speeds and still have another 10 to spare to boost capacity.

So Sievert is content that he can profitably meet the needs of mobile broadband customers with his existing resources without having to resort to pricing gimmicks that may anger customers. And since, as I’ve argued, the average consumer isn’t too worried if their mobile wireless is LTE or WiMAX, Clearwire does have a chance. Add to that a relationship with the cable providers and Sprint, and Sievert claims he has access to 100 million customer relationships through his partners. In other words, if consumers decide they want unlimited wireless broadband from their existing cable provider, rather than a constrained offering from their wireless provider, Clearwire may succeed.

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26 Responses to “Clearwire's Big Bet on Our Broadband Addiction”

  1. Clearwire is a pioneer in the 4G market. AT&T and Verizon Wireless are settlers.

    As US history dictates, most of the pioneers died trying while the settlers enjoyed prosperity.

    I applaud Clearwire for being true pioneers, but can they really compete with the likes of AT&T and Verizon Wireless?

    Even if LTE is technically inferior to WiMAX (the jury is still out), the major carriers will force feed consumers with LTE technology and demand equipment manufacturers to focus on LTE equipment.

    Will Clearwire run the risk of offending a major investor and migrating to LTE chip-sets. I don’t see this happening.

    I also agree with an earlier comment that Sprint can’t be counted on as a long term partner for Clearwire. Even with massive restructuring, there’re still a sinking ship.

    It’s not a question of LTE versus WiMAX technology. The real issue is can Clearwire convert & secure enough existing AT&T and Verizon Wireless customers before the giants awaken.

    • abdul Durrani

      I agree with your comments. Microwave radios used by Clear wire cannot give the desired capacity. The microwave back haul is the weakest link since at 256 QAM you can only push a certain speed and the end to end delay also becomes a problem.

  2. LTE strikes me as a pathetic attempt by telcos to cling to the past and to try, once again, to hold back the Internet. Why do you assume that LTE will be a dominant technology over WiMAX? I think consumers know enough now to judge which one gives them the better deal.

  3. Hmmm, I guess Clearwire is hoping Verizon Wireless and AT&T will roll over and play dead with LTE. Not likely.

    Maybe Clearwire thinks its relationship with Sprint will help drive long term revenue. With the rate Dan Hesse’s team is losing subscribers, Sprint has their own serious issues.

    Let’s face it, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have something that Clearwire doesn’t have…boatloads of existing customers. Why do the analysts seem to forget this most important fact?

    Once the mobile giants start offering attractive LTE plans, I suspect Clearwire will cease to gain new market share.

    AT&T and VW are playing it smart. Let Clearwire get the market interested in high bandwidth WiMAX like sevices, then start offering LTE.

    WhyMAX? Why Clearwire? The safe bet is on the big boys.

  4. @Kurt Marko: Obviously Mr. Cooper knows what he’s talking about, but I caution you to shrug off the mention of spectrum so easily. He’s right: throwing MHz at the problem isn’t going to fix things long-term, but Clearwire has over TWICE the spectrum in most markets that AT&T or Verizon have. As he says, adding 10% or 20% to the radio spectrum won’t solve anything, but if you think that having 40 – 50MHz more spectrum in some markets isn’t a huge advantage, I think you’re simplifying things too much. Just my opinion, could be wrong.

  5. Mikael Waernlund

    Isn’t the real question the same as it has been for GSM vs CDMA and HSPA vs EVDO? I.e. The global opportunity for device makers. When LTE rolls out over the world, there will be a market opportunity for new device makers to participate in a 1-3 billion unit market, or they can spend that development resource in participating in Clearwire’s 10-20 million devices opportunity.

  6. Kurt Marko

    I admire Clearwire for jumping on the WiMax bandwagon, but their spectrum inventory is probably less valuable than it appears to laymen. Check out this recent interview (on C-Span’s Communicators: with Martin Cooper, one of the inventors of the cell phone. In it he highlights the fact that the demand for wireless bandwidth is growing by orders of magnitude (he cites a figure of something like 40x over the next few years); and his corollary is that adding 10 or 20% to the radio spectrum isn’t going to solve this problem.

    The winner will be who can consistently supply 4G throughput. Using Cooper’s premise, this will be achieved through new compression and intelligent antenna technologies, not the brute-force addition of radio spectrum.

  7. if verizon and AT&T move to a metered and expensive 4G model as they have been promising shareholders than it will not be a question of competition but rather absolute market domination for clearwire/sprint.

    however i do not believe verizon and/or AT&T will move to metered as they are promising but rather that it is a big bunch of BS they are telling wall street in hopes of higher market caps.

  8. Here’s a suggestion – why not make this a data-driven argument?

    Create a permanent link on Gigaom somewhere with a table – number of 4G subscribers for Sprint/Clearwire, and number of 4G subscribers for AT&T/Verizon, and update it monthly for the next year?

  9. I think the the ongoing analysis of Clearwire on this site has tilted towards the shallow and fairly obvious. Ok, enough griping.

    THe Wimax advantage is a head start, open devices connections, and not being typical telcos (It may be Sprint owned but is managed differently), and last but not least:

    The users are delighted with Clearwire, the signals are rock solid, the connections is robust (I have a Dozen colleagues that I poll continuously), and the latency is low.

    I do not expect that LTE will be such a panacea for the cellcos, and I think that consumers will not care whether LTE or Wimax is the RF link between them and their streaming video, porn., or skypes.