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5/6/2010
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Eric Ogren
Eric Ogren
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Clearwire Raises A Hammer Over Wimax's Coffin

Clearwire has been the biggest champion of WiMax as the real next-generation wireless networking technology in the U.S. It's smack in the middle of a huge WiMax roll-out across the country. Earlier this year, Clearwire's CEO hinted that Clearwire might make a technology switch to Long Term Evolution. Now, that switch is one step closer to becoming a reality. Is WiMax dead?

Clearwire has been the biggest champion of WiMax as the real next-generation wireless networking technology in the U.S. It's smack in the middle of a huge WiMax roll-out across the country. Earlier this year, Clearwire's CEO hinted that Clearwire might make a technology switch to Long Term Evolution. Now, that switch is one step closer to becoming a reality. Is WiMax dead?What's going on here, Clearwire? Back in March, Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow said he believes that the world should agree on one next-generation wireless networking technology. In theory, that's a great idea. Rather than say, "It should be WiMax," he said, "We can switch to LTE if we have to." Wait, what? Isn't LTE the competition? It gets better.

The company did something else recently that puts the future of WiMax in serious doubt. During its recent quarterly results conference call with the press and analysts, Clearwire let it slip that it has changed the terms of agreement it has with WiMax-investor Intel. The new terms would allow either party to bow out of the agreement at any time. Why is this significant? It throws open the door for Clearwire to switch from WiMax and LTE and not be penalized (at least by Intel) for making such a move.

Morrow's original sentiment from March has merit. While competing technologies are good in theory, eventually one loses out. Think VHS versus Betamax, Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD, and so on. Having two competing wireless standards in the U.S. (CDMA versus GSM) has caused a rift in device compatibility not only here, but also in the rest of the world in a way that is detrimental to U.S. users. It would be better for everyone to agree on one technology, and move forward at full steam supporting that one technology.

WiMax and LTE share some technology that would make it feasible for Clearwire to switch from WiMax to LTE. Both use MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) antenna arrays, for example. Morrow noted, "With this overlap, shouldn't we all be thinking how can we bring it together? We're not going to fight a war. We're going to provide our customers just what they want. Our spectrum is designed and built so we can add on LTE should we need to."

All this begs the question: Does WiMax have a future? If Clearwire (and business partner Sprint) give up on WiMax in the U.S and switch to LTE, does that effectively kill WiMax? In the U.S., yes, it will. WiMax is being deployed in other countries as a last-mile solution for broadband. Will those network operators switch to LTE? Not immediately. The dynamics of those markets are vastly different from that of the U.S.

Despite the upheaval it would initially cause, the long-term benefit to U.S. customers could be substantial. For the wireless network operators to agree on one standard moving forward could create a lot of efficiences and guarantee better interoperability with providers in other countries.

[Via GigaOm]

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