Sprint, Clearwire Team on WiMax

With wider national coverage than either company could have had on its own, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Clearwire Corp. say they can achieve on their joint WiMax network some of what Google Inc. and others want to see in the prized 700MHz band.

The companies announced Thursday they will link their respective WiMax wireless broadband networks to give subscribers a seamless roaming experience across territories that eventually will cover 300 million U.S. residents. The network will deliver between 2M bps (bits per second) and 4M bps downstream and about half that speed upstream, they said.

Sprint and Clearwire plan to use WiMax so that subscribers can choose among a wide range of devices built to the open standard on which the technology is based. In addition, they intend to let users access any application or service on the Internet, said Atish Gude, senior vice president of mobile broadband operations at Sprint.

The upcoming auction of 700MHz radio spectrum around the U.S. has sparked a fierce debate between traditional carriers and Google Inc., Frontline Wireless LLC and others over how that spectrum should be used. Current mobile operators generally sell a limited set of devices locked to their networks and favor their own applications among the offerings their customers can access on their phones. Google told the FCC on Friday it won't bid unless the government requires any-device, any-application networks. It also wants a rule forcing the winners to sell wholesale network access to other service providers. Sprint doesn't have plans for wholesale access.

Sprint, which announced its WiMax plans last year, said Thursday it owns spectrum licenses for the WiMax band that cover 185 million U.S. residents. Clearwire has spectrum in the same band to serve 115 million people. The combined network should be fairly comprehensive, covering urban, suburban and rural areas across the country, which today has a population just over 302 million, the Census Bureau estimates.

After "soft" launches in Chicago and Washington, D.C., at the end of this year and commercial availability starting next year, the companies together aim to reach 100 million people by the end of 2008. This is the same 2008 goal Sprint had given previously by itself, but it was an aggressive goal then and is now a conservative estimate, Gude said. The companies did not estimate when the full network would be completed.

Given the higher frequency Sprint and Clearwire plan to use, at 2.5GHz, their network is likely to need more base stations than a similar network using 700MHz, which travels over long distances and through walls more easily.

Clearwire already operates a wireless broadband service and has been planning to convert it to standard mobile WiMax, which is only now emerging as a commercial technology. The company is backed by heavy hitters including Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc.

Sprint, struggling against larger rivals AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless Inc., could use Clearwire's helping hand. The deal may let Sprint realize its WiMax dream at less expense, said IDC analyst Godfrey Chua. There seems to be little overlap between the two carriers' licenses, so the partnership won't really hurt competition and is likely to win government approval, Chua said.

The first users will access the network with standalone modems, notebook add-on cards or PCs and smaller Ultra Mobile PCs with embedded modems, Sprint said. But it sees mobility as the key driver of the network and believes WiMax handsets will arrive by 2009, Gude said.

However, Chua thinks ever-faster cellular technologies have the edge for mobility. The Sprint-Clearwire network will compete mainly against DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services, with the advantage that subscribers can set up a notebook away from home and enjoy the same service. It could significantly boost broadband competition, he said.

"It's making the world a little bit more interesting now," Chua said.

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