Three Minutes on WiMax with Clearwire's Chief

If WiMAX catches on as a popular broadband standard in the United States, Clearwire will get a lion's share of the credit. After all, while its partners such as Sprint, Google and Comcast will be supplying money and infrastructure, it is Clearwire that has been tasked with building a WiMAX network that spans the whole United States.

At the WiMAX World convention in Chicago this week, Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff sat down with Network World's Brad Reed to discuss his company's plans to deploy WiMAX in the United States, what benefits WiMAX services will have for enterprise users, and what is WiMAX's niche in the mobile broadband market as a whole.

Network World: What will Clearwire's role be in building out this nationwide WiMAX network?

Ben Wolff: Initially, we had signed a letter of intent to do a joint build with Sprint, but ultimately we couldn't figure out how to make that work. So instead we agreed to merge Sprint's WiMAX business with Clearwire and create a company that will be completely independent of Sprint. So Clearwire will build out WiMAX throughout the entire country. We will, of course, be able to access lot of Sprint's assets, particularly some of their fiber assets that we will use to build out the network.

NWW: What are your plans for offering WiMAX services over the next year?

Wolff: Our first WiMAX markets will be Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Or., and Grand Rapids, Mich. Sprint already has Baltimore up and running, and they're going to have Chicago and Washington, D.C., up by the end of the year. They've also talked about deploying services in Boston and Philadelphia next year as well. Our intention is to build WiMAX networks in the top 100 markets in the United States by the end of 2010.

NWW: WiMAX really stands apart from mobile broadband standards such as LTE or Ultra Mobile Broadband, which are essentially evolutions of existing cellular data standards. You and other speakers at this convention have sought to downplay the idea that WiMAX and these other mobile broadband technologies are in direct competition with each other. What, then, do you think WiMAX's unique niche in the market will be?

Wolff: As an operator, I'm interested in deploying whatever the best technology is. I don't need to get into a debate over which one is better. WiMAX is here and it's available right now and we're already getting great economies of scale out of it. But if WiMAX doesn't keep pace with other standards, then as an operator I've got the ability to deploy something else. We just want to use whatever the best tech is for delivering services for our customers.

NWW: And what are those services that you want to deliver with WiMAX?

Wolff: We're concentrating on delivering a lot of bandwidth to people rather than places. In other words, we're giving people the kind of broadband experience that they're used to on their desktop, and to have it in the palm of their hand on devices of all shapes and sizes. What we're doing for the Web is what cellular communications was doing for landline phone services 20 years ago. Even today's 3G devices aren't the "always on" type of devices that WiMAX networks will support.

NWW: If I'm the CIO of a major company, why should I invest in WiMAX?

Wolff: Enterprise users right now are the biggest users of today's 3G data cards. Now if you as an enterprise user think about being able to get an office-like bandwidth experience for teleworkers and for workers on the go, you can imagine that the level of productivity will go up dramatically. Think about the tremendous amount of use that mobile WiMAX connectivity will be to enterprise customers even before you start talking about applications that are geared specifically toward enterprise customers.

When it comes to enterprise WiMAX applications, I think you're going to see "push-to-see"-type video conferencing services that are going to become great applications for enterprise customers. The ability to click a button on a device and be able not only to talk with people in a conference call but to be able to see them as well will be one of killer applications over WiMAX networks. I think WiMAX networks will also have the ability with VoIP to integrate fixed line and mobile voice services. Companies like Cisco are making great strides in enterprise wireline-based VoIP communications. I think unified messaging has the potential to be a real productivity tool for enterprise customers.

NWW: Can you explain why cable companies such as Time Warner and Comcast decided to get involved in the Clearwire WiMAX coalition?

Wolff: When you think about the assets and opportunities that each of the cable companies and Sprint and Clearwire bring to table, we can deliver six out of the six services that consumers really want right now, which are broadband at home and on the go, video at home and on the go, and voice at home and on the go.

This is similar to Verizon and AT&T, which have both wired and wireless offerings for voice and data and are getting into the video market and expanding their broadband offerings. So we all decided that it would be best to work together given the competition that we have from the telecom providers. The services that we and our partners in the Clearwire coalition won't just be "me too" services, and we want to be able to leapfrog what the telcos are currently doing.

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