Thursday, December 4, 2008

One More Reminder: WiMAX is Not a Business Model

Clearwire CEO Benjamin Wolff says the network will built to support both WiMAX and Long Term Evolution, the "rival" standard favored by the world's GSM providers and even CDMA-based networks such as Verizon Communications.

"Our vendors will be able to deliver network infrastructure equipment to us that will enable us to operate both mobile WiMAX and LTE technologies if we decide that it makes sense to do so several years from now when LTE becomes commercially available," says Wolff.

"If LTE truly becomes established as a global standard as WiMAX has, Clearwire will be well positioned to take advantage of that opportunity," says Wolff.

Though sometimes obscured by the hype, WiMAX is broadband radio access. It is not a business model. Clearwire's willingness to use both protocols is simply further proof. If there is a new business model to be built, it will come from packaging, pricing and other elements that would create something like an open broadband wireless Internet experience, akin to what users can do today with 3G dongles for their PCs, but also including new "end user" segments, devices or applications.

Still, it is far from clear that even if Clearwire succeeds at doing those things, it will be alone. Verizon Communications has been quite vocal about opportunities for machine-to-machine applications, which would indeed open up new "end user" segments. And as we have seen time and time again, it isn't all that hard for one provider to mimic another provider's packaging, pricing or device features, if it is necessary.

Clearwire probably has something between a one-year advantage to two years worth of advantage on the "raw bandwidth" dimension. That won't provide much of a differentiator for long. To be sure, Clearwire has plans that would move it further away from the current mobile narrowband or broadband packaging model.

What remains untested is the size of the problem and the amount of "pain" users now face in the mostly-closed mobile broadband model. Technologists might experience "closed" environments as a pain point. Most users do not. More flexible, casual pricing arguably addresses a bigger pain point: the desire to occasionally use features.

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