4G Wireless in America: Where We Are, Where We’re Headed

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Clearwire's LTE Is a 'Potential Future'

More so than any of its competitors, Clearwire used the 4G World platform to talk about farsighted visions for 4G, in which download speeds might be another ten times faster than they are today. Chief commercial officer Mike Sievert said the company's recent tests of LTE technology in Phoenix produced download speeds of more than 90 megabits per second and upload speeds of more than 30 mbps, numbers that would eclipse the high-single-digit and low-teens mbps numbers currently seen on Clearwire's existing WiMax network and Verizon's planned LTE implementation.

Clearwire chief commercial officer Mike Sievert
Clearwire's Mike Sievert speaking at 4G World in Chicago earlier this week.
"What you have here is something massively different--this isn't your grandfather's LTE," said Sievert. The juice behind the faster LTE speeds, Sievert said, was Clearwire's ability to tap its massive spectrum portfolio--which is an order of magnitude bigger than any other carrier's--and to use wider wireless "channels" to provide faster connections. The 20MHz channels used in its "LTE 2X" trial, Sievert noted, were twice as large as the 10MHz channels Verizon plans to use in its LTE deployment.

Though Clearwire didn't announce specific plans to deploy LTE in the future ("this is a potential future for us, but we haven't made a decision," Sievert said), Sievert ended his talk by calling for the industry to develop multimode LTE/WiMax devices that would bridge the gap between different networks on different technologies, much like today's hybrid offerings from Clearwire and Sprint that provide access to both 3G and 4G networks. That way, he said, users can have access to faster networks without having to worry about the underlying technology label.

"We need to get people away from the alphabet soup they don't care about, and just provide a better experience," Sievert said. "There really is a massive consumer demand [for 4G services]. The question is now, how do you stay ahead of that tidal wave of demand?"

For Clearwire, any new business for 2011 must wait until the company figures out how it will obtain additional funding for operations and network buildouts, a process that may involve more investment from majority owner Sprint, or a sale or rental of some spectrum assets. Sievert wouldn't comment on recent stories claiming that a possible auction of Clearwire's spectrum assets is already under way.

Pending any radical changes to the company's fiscal fortunes, Sievert said that for 2011 Clearwire would focus on "keeping our head down and completing the network [buildout] we started." Clearwire, which will report its third-quarter figures in early November, has said that it is on track to end the year with 3 million subscribers on its 4G network, including customers signed up by its wholesale partners. In 2011, retailer Best Buy will also resell Clearwire's services under its Best Buy Connect program. Additionally, Clearwire is now offering prepaid wireless data services under its Rover brand of devices.

Sprint Will Leverage Its 4G Head Start

Like its partner Clearwire, Sprint in 2011 will concentrate on reaping the benefits of its rapid 4G network buildout in 2010, which will conclude with the addition of Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco in the last two months of the year.

"We'll have a continued expansion of the existing network throughout 2010," said Matt Carter, Sprint's president of 4G, in an interview. "We feel like we've laid the foundation. Now it's just about filling in the holes."

Samsung Epic 4G
Sprint's second 4G WiMax smartphone, the Samsung Epic 4G.
As the biggest wireless brand with a true 4G-network option, Sprint has taken the lead in bringing new devices to the WiMax network. At 4G World the company announced what it called the first "hybrid" netbook and laptop, compact devices from Dell that include embedded radios to connect to either Sprint's 3G network or the 4G WiMax network where available.

Although many observers think that Verizon's pending LTE launch may steal some of the 4G market leadership from Sprint and Clearwire, Carter said that he welcomed the arrival of Verizon's services since it gives Sprint another chance to show how its bigger spectrum position allows Sprint and Clearwire to offer true "unlimited" data plans as opposed to pay-per-bit or data-capped plans.

"We've been hearing a lot about how when Verizon gets out there, the plans will be tiered or more restricted in terms of use," Carter said. "That lets us ask users if they want that, or do they want to come over here and enjoy an unlimited buffet of data."

Without giving specific product plans, Carter said that Sprint will be looking to add at the very least more volumes of its two WiMax smartphones introduced in 2010, the HTC EVO 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G. The EVO--which sold out in many markets after being introduced in June--and the Epic have garnered rave reviews, especially for their ability to display video.

"We'd love to get more of those devices on a timely basis," said Carter.

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