"Personal broadband" on its way
Seattle Times technology reporter
The next stage of the Internet is on the verge of arriving.
Starting as early as next year, WiMax broadband networks will start to be pieced together in a more visible way — service providers such as Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are building towers, Intel is manufacturing chips, and Samsung and Motorola are supplying devices.
Consumers soon will be able to get what some are calling "personal broadband," or high-speed Internet access everywhere they go.
For now, the vision, being laid out this week at the WiMax World industry conference in Boston, is far-reaching and broad. With WiMax, the Internet is expected to be integrated into all types of devices, including music players, cameras, copy machines and much more. Teenagers will never be far from MySpace.com, and cameras will upload video straight to YouTube.
Although it sounds futuristic, it has never been as close to reality as it is now.
In the past couple of months, Clearwire and Sprint Nextel said they were both committed to rolling out competing nationwide WiMax networks.
Clearwire, the Kirkland company led by wireless entrepreneur Craig McCaw, has raised $2 billion to build a national network, with half of the funds coming from partners Motorola and Intel. Sprint Nextel also has forged blue-chip partnerships with Motorola, Intel and Samsung.
"Clearwire and Sprint Nextel have thrust us into the mainstream," said Fred Wright, Motorola's senior vice president of broadband products. "The global excitement [for WiMax] is like the beginning of the Internet." Motorola itself is conducting 18 WiMax trials around the world.
Currently, a fixed version of WiMax is available in scattered markets across the globe, giving users access to the provider's network from a single location at one time. But most players are waiting to deploy networks until mobile WiMax is available, with a user's online connection handed off from tower to tower, much as a cellphone does today. Equipment for that technology may be ready early next year.
Clearwire is one company that's not waiting. It has deployed an early version of WiMax in 31 U.S. markets and some European cities.
Last year's WiMax World was filled with tentativeness, said Clearwire Co-Chief Executive Ben Wolff. "People were asking, 'Is this going to turn into something or not,' " he said. "This year, instead of people talking about what they are going to do, we can say we are actually doing it."
On Wednesday, the first day of the conference, Wolff addressed about 5,000 attendees to update them on the privately held company.
He said since McCaw founded the company in 2003, Clearwire has been offering WiMax-like networks to compete with DSL and cable broadband services. Customers buy a modem that can fit in a briefcase and which plugs into the wall. The service is considered portable because it can be accessed anywhere in a service territory, as long as the modem can be plugged in.
Since its start, Clearwire has attracted 162,000 subscribers.
But Wolff and many other industry leaders are placing billion-dollar bets that WiMax has a much richer future than replacing DSL and cable. Clearwire wants to provide mobile WiMax, with the expectation that it will spur more applications. In addition, the modems will be much smaller, and PC cards to connect to the WiMax network should be available shortly for the laptop.
What's less clear is why yet another wireless broadband network is being built when others already exist.
Wi-Fi, for one, is popular in coffee shops, airports and other locations, and wireless carriers have started to deploy 3G, the third-generation cellular network that offers DSL-like speeds.
How is WiMax different? And if there is demand for Internet on the go, then why don't cameras, copy machines and music players have 3G chips by now?
It's the price, said Scott Richardson, vice president of Intel's mobility group. The 3G market is mostly corporate, whereas WiMax will be aimed at the consumer, Richardson said. "The cost [of 3G technology] is significantly higher than Wi-Fi, which prevents mass adoption by consumers," he said.
Intel's goal is to make one chip with both Wi-Fi and WiMax capabilities for $20 each. At that price, it can easily be tacked on to a laptop or consumer device.
What consumers will do with always-on broadband Internet access is another question entirely. And it's one that industry leaders are reluctant to answer. The canned response for now seems to be that it is too early to say: WiMax will spawn new applications not even be dreamed of today.
"That's an easy way to say, 'I'm not going to say,' " said Motorola's Wright. "But I absolutely believe that Clearwire knows what it will do with this equipment and technology."
Wolff said his company does have plans, but "we are shy about saying what will happen in the future in case we are not able to pull it off."
There are still a lot of unknowns.
"You can't start making applications before there is a network to invent on," he said.
Some of that should become clearer soon. Through its partnership with Intel and Motorola, Clearwire is building a test mobile WiMax network in Portland. In a live video feed at WiMax World on Wednesday, Intel showed the sun rising, while one of an employee in a Clearwire hat supervised the installation of a Motorola access point.
Intel's Richardson said the network will be tested by a small number of people at first, but then will be opened to Intel's 14,000 employees in the area.
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company