The drive to 4G is here and it isn't here. That sounds like a contradiction, and it is-and it's true.
On one hand, WiMax provider Clearwire reported an acceleration of its rollout at its quarterly earnings call. On the other, a CNNMoney feature points out that the initial speeds of 4G networks will be a lot like 3G, and that things aren't happening too quickly.
Simply put, the march of a technology is steady, but it almost always doesn't happen as quickly or as uniformly as its backers promise. It's a bit of a shell game: Carriers know how long it takes for a service to roll out to an entire massive footprint. Their messages to the public and regulators is in the hands of the marketing departments, however, so the impression is created that everyone will have the highest speeds on day one, or close to it.
Says CNNMoney reporter David Goldman:
Carriers already have razor-thin margins after spending billions of dollars building out their 3G networks and trying to balance profits with the need to stay ahead of customers' increasing data demands. As a result, the 3G -- and even 2G -- services will continue to be around for quite some time.
That 2G and 3G aren't going anywhere is true, of course. It's also true that AT&T and Verizon Wireless have made significant commitments to 4G. The story points out that Verizon plans to have its service in as many as 30 markets and in front of 100 million people this year. Information is a bit fuzzier on AT&T. Its rollout is set for the second half of next year, but it could be earlier if competitive pressures mount. Finally, Sprint-a WiMax advocate and majority owner of Clearwire-is set to launch WiMax this summer.
WiMax-the Rodney Dangerfield of 4G-chugs right along. during the fourth quarter compared to the year-ago quarter: It signed 5,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2008 and 87,000 in the last quarter of 2009. It ended the year with 688,000 customers and now operates in 27 markets with a cumulative population of 34 million. Clearwire executives say the company will triple the number of subscribers and increase the marketing base to 120 million this year.
There is a bit of a duality to the market at this point. Carriers are claiming to be in front of, or about to be in front of, tens of millions of customers and potential customers. At the same time, the tremendous hurdles to reaching so large a footprint haven't gone away. To some extent, these companies might be using an old trick of providing service to a small pocket of people and taking credit for the bigger area in which they are located.