Don't Overlook the WiMax/Cable Connection


It must be an interesting time to be in the WiMax business. The economy is down and Long Term Evolution (LTE)-the other major 4G entrant-is a looming threat on the horizon.


But there is good news for WiMax: It has a powerful ally-and one that really needs it-in the cable industry.


Making announcements -- such as rollouts and a new CEO -- in the current landscape is almost like reassuring everybody that the industry still is here. Clearwire, which brands its WiMax service as Clear, is doing all it can to portray a business-as-usual approach in the teeth of the current economic gale and progress being made by LTE. This week, according to CRN, the company said that co-owner Sprint will roll out the service to Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Dallas; Fort Worth; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. Next year's to-do list includes Boston, Houston, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.


The story says that these cities have been mentioned before, but that the rollout is taking longer than expected and that Clear-which the writer points out is being referred to as Sprint 4G by the carrier-has a limited window before the arrival of LTE, which is being used by Verizon and AT&T. It is, therefore, a window that best be taken advantage of.


Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks co-own the company, along with Sprint, Google and Intel. Cable's interest goes beyond ownership, however. Clear and cable are a good match: Cable operators are notorious for their lack of a wireless offering that WiMax could provide. Cable operators, in turn, could provide Clear and other WiMax companies with customer relationships, marketing, sophisticated back offices-and cash. Along those lines, eWeek says that in Portland, Ore., Comcast will buy Clearwire's service at wholesale rates and repackage it as a Comcast service.


Longtime wireless reporter Glenn Fleishman offers, in this Ars Technica piece, a good description of the coming conflict between WiMax and LTE. He points out that AT&T and Verizon acquired 700 MHz licenses a bit more than a year ago. The licenses have build-out requirements for un-served and underserved areas, so LTE may be seen in precincts untouched by WiMax. But there also will be a lot of head-to-head competition, and Fleishman's final point is a good one: If WiMax takes advantage of its first-to-market advantage, a nice little price war could break out once LTE arrives in earnest. Such wars benefits end users.


There are a lot of suggestive cable/wireless/WiMax connections. The theme is that the cable industry is keenly interested in-perhaps it can fairly be said that it is desperate for-a wireless play. In addition to cable's pieces of Clearwire, Cox said this week that it has agreed to work with Berliner Communications to design and build 3G networks. The piece links to an earlier story that said Cox plans to resell Sprint Nextel services. The story doesn't speculate on whether the coziness with Sprint-which of course is partnered with cable operators in Clearwire-suggests the eventual use of WiMax. It is almost certain that any 3G network being designed today will be upgradeable to 4G. The piece mentions that Cox bought spectrum in the 700 MHz auction in eight states, but doesn't say what, if any, build-out requirements it has.


It really is quite simple: There is a delicate balance of power between the cable and telephone industries, and 4G will be a key to the next phase of the battle. That alone is enough to virtually guarantee WiMax will be a significant player, no matter which platform is garnering the most headlines today. The facts that the two major phone companies have already chosen LTE and that the cable operators are heavily invested WiMax shows that this phase of the conflict is upon us.