Clearwire changes relationship status with WiMax to 'it's complicated,' then Friends LTE | webOS Nation

Clearwire changes relationship status with WiMax to 'it's complicated,' then Friends LTE

by Derek Kessler Thu, 17 Sep 2009 9:07 am EDT

  Clearwire, WiMax, and LTE... what a tangled web we weave

As the rest of the world, Verizon included, dedicates itself to LTE, an eye has turned to lone WiMax supporters Sprint and quasi-subsidiary Clearwire (Sprint owns 51% of the company). Unbeknownst to most, however, WiMax and LTE are actually quite similar, so much so that Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow recently told the Wall Street Journal that if they were to switch to LTE, it’d be a matter of a mere software upgrade.

While Clearwire’s Clear service is only available in more than 40 markets in 16 US states, not a single mobile phone has been released to take advantage of the high-speed mobile service (up to 10 Mbps down/5 Mbps up), mostly due to the power draw requirements. Meanwhile, Sprint has been promoting their co-developed 4G network (formerly known as Xohm) at every turn, leading to speculation that the Pre may end up with a 4G radio.

Switching to LTE would pose significant challenges for Clearwire. Firstly, they’d need to have Sprint onboard, and thus far Sprint seems satisfied with their own 4G deployments in a handful of markets. Clearwire’s deal with Sprint allows for infrastructure and spectrum sharing, along with a roaming agreement between the two. Additionally, Clearwire and Sprint would have to deal with the already deployed WiMax devices in the hands of customers, either by running a legacy WiMax network for several years, pushing out a software upgrade for those devices (likely not as easy as upgrading the towers), or by taking the expensive step of replacing all customer-owned WiMax cards with LTE cards. Of all options, running a legacy WiMax network for a few years seems to be the most likely option, giving Sprint and Clearwire the time to let those contracts expire and pull the plug.

All that is of course assuming that Clearwire even makes the switch. Why would they? For one, it’d put everybody on the same standard, and with the exception of SIM card toting LTE, neither of the competing standards have little technical advantage. But going with the pack would have distinct fiscal advantages for both network operators and device manufacturers. Imagine a world where manufacturers only have to make LTE-compatible modems and phones. No more later-for-Europe launches while somebody works on converting their CDMA phone to GSM. Sounds good, eh?

Well, it’s not all roses. For one, assuming that LTE’s power draw can be considerably decreased (or battery technology significantly improved), a LTE phone on Sprint would still have to tote EVDO, 1xRTT, and CDMA radios to ensure operability in areas where LTE support hasn’t yet been built-out. And that LTE support isn’t coming soon. Verizon is just now testing its first LTE sites in Seattle, and Clearwire and Sprint are slowly rolling out WiMax, with only a handful of markets slated for initial activation in the coming year.

So how likely are we to see a 4G phone, either WiMax or LTE, from Palm? We will, eventually, but it’s not going to be for several years. In the meantime, Clearwire, Sprint, and everybody else are going to market their services as “mobile broadband,” i.e. laptop modems and mobile base stations. And as for Sprint and Clearwire switching to LTE? It’s a possibility, especially if Deutsche Telekom AG were to purchase Sprint (Deutsche Telekom has already committed to LTE), but right now it’s not a huge possibility. The biggest obstacle to any switchover will be the installed customer base - just ask Bell Mobility how that switch from CDMA to GSM is going.