Clearwire Set to Launch Its First WiMax City

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Clearwire will formally launch its first commercial WiMax network on Tuesday in Portland, Oregon, laying down the second piece of a planned nationwide system that was first unveiled last year in Baltimore.

The wireless broadband pioneer last month completed its merger with Sprint Nextel's former WiMax network business in a new company, which continues the Clearwire name. The venture, which has investment from Google and several cable operators, wants to offer an economical alternative to cable and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) that can also serve subscribers on the road.

Portland-area residents have been able to sign up for service since early last month, according to Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Scott Richardson, but Clearwire will use its Tuesday morning event to kick off a local marketing campaign that will mark the debut of the Clear brand, which eventually will extend to all of the venture's cities.

There are more options for subscribers to choose from on the Portland network than in Baltimore, ranging from a US$20-per-month service similar to basic DSL to one with mobile service for two devices, priced at $80 per month. Clearwire is also offering a package that combines home and mobile service for $60 per month.

The $20-per-month home plan delivers 768Kb per second downstream and 128Kbps upstream. The least expensive home plan in Baltimore costs $25 per month now, a limited-time discount from the regular rate of $35 per month. At the Baltimore launch, Sprint said its network would deliver between 2Mbps and 4Mbps. Both of these plans are unlimited in the amount of data users can download in a month, according to the company.

Now that Clearwire and Sprint's Xohm WiMax business have merged, service plans will be harmonized, Richardson said. The company will study consumer response to the services in the two cities to help figure out how those plans will look, he said. Clearwire will also offer a way for subscribers of the service originally launched by Sprint to roam onto Clearwire networks, Richardson said.

Response to the Baltimore network has met Clearwire's expectations, Richardson said. The network there launched commercially in late September. The company has not disclosed specific numbers on the uptake of the Baltimore offering, he said.

In Portland, Clearwire already has coverage across most of the city's metropolitan area of roughly 700 square miles (1,812 square kilometers), according to Richardson. The company already offers pre-WiMax wireless broadband in more than 40 other markets and will convert those over time to standard WiMax.

The biggest shortcoming of the WiMax service today is that coverage is limited to just two markets. Sprint, which remains a partner in the new Clearwire, has a service that combines 4G (fourth-generation) WiMax capability in Baltimore with 3G mobile data on Sprint's network for use elsewhere. The carrier offers a dual-mode laptop card to access both networks. Clearwire also plans to provide dual-mode devices for use on its Portland network, according to Richardson.

On Tuesday, Clearwire will formally launch a desktop modem for home or office use and a USB (Universal Serial Bus) device for mobile connectivity, as well as a list of laptops with built-in WiMax capability that can be used on Clearwire's network. Customer equipment will be sold in retail stores as well as on Clearwire's site. Although some compatibility testing is required for devices to be used on each network, standard WiMax clients should be able to work on either one, according to Clearwire.

Clearwire will also soon offer the Clear Voice Adapter, which can connect a customer's standard landline phone to the Clearwire home modem for VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service. The company aims to sell that service for $25 per month for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada, Richardson said.

Clearwire's pricing in Portland is likely to hit the mark better than that of the Baltimore offerings because of the low entry price, said IDC analyst Godfrey Chua. The ability to use the same network on the go as at home or at work may help WiMax compete with existing fixed broadband and cellular services, Chua said. But Clearwire is going up against strong economic headwinds and may yet have trouble financing the multibillion-dollar construction of its network over the next few years, he said.

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