Wireless broadband has been easy to love, but hard to turn to commercial advantage; hardware deals may change that.
Everybody loves wireless broadband. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell loves it. Cities, big and small love it. Mobile-service providers love it. And, finally, hardware manufacturers are falling in love with it, too.
All this love has an understandable cause. The wireless-broadband business holds the same sort of promise the cell-phone business did two decades ago--which has made it especially attractive to entrepreneurial types, such as Craig McCaw, who hit it big in cellular, and to cell-phone service providers, who find themselves trying to squeeze revenue growth out of an increasingly saturated marketplace.
But it's hard to maintain a steamy affair with just a technology, and so far that's about all wireless broadband has been--technologies and proposed standards and tests and trials. What's needed to really feel the love is a product--something to sell and buy. And that means hardware.
Finally, that hardware is on the way, and two emerging wireless-broadband standards have found hardware partners. McCaw's Clearwire, which is championing the WiMAX standard, has signed a deal with silicon giant Intel to develop WiMAX hardware. Flarion Technologies, architect of FLASH-OFDM, has found an ally in networking-equipment maker Netgear.
Wireless broadband is just as important to the chip makers and networking vendors as it is to service providers: It's where the growth will come from. Intel's collaboration with Clearwire, for instance, is the next step in its continued development of WiMAX technology beyond "Rosedale," its first "system-on-a-chip" for customer-premises equipment.
Hardware is also crucial to Flarion. It is conducting trials of FLASH-OFDM with several service providers, including Aloha Partners, Nextel, T-Mobile, Telstra, Vodafone, and the city of Washington D.C. If it is going to move beyond trials to commercial roll-outs, it needs to convince service providers that the equipment they need will be there.
The WiMAX-vs.-FLASH-OFDM conflict is just one battle in the mobile providers' broadband war. Cell-phone growth in the U.S. is slowing, as the market reaches saturation, and every major mobile company is looking to becoming a WISP--a wireless Internet service provider--as a way to grow their businesses. While Flarion's partners test OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), other mobile providers are trying out other technologies in their search for new markets to conquer--AT&T (with its EDGE service); Verizon (BroadbandAccess); and Sprint (no snappy brand name yet).
Hardware isn't the only deciding factor, of course: Victory, in the long run, might go to the company that offers the fastest data-speed service and has the deepest pockets for marketing and acquisitions. Based on those criteria, WiMAX and Intel/Clearwire are the serious contenders. But FLASH-OFDM and Flarion/Netgear have some allies with pretty hefty resources as well: Aloha Partners, for example, is a privately held company that is the largest owner of licensed 700-MHz spectrum in the United States. It plans to provide wireless broadband Internet service to customers in 166 markets throughout the country, including 60 percent of the Top 40 markets. And you've gotta love that kind of demand for hardware.
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