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Wednesday, November 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wireless Internet's new target: Seattle homes

Seattle Times technology reporter

Types of broadband


Broadband technology enables high-speed access to the Internet

Cable modem: Provided by cable operators such as Comcast. Uses cable infrastructure.

DSL: Digital subscriber line, provided by phone companies. Uses copper wire or, increasingly, fiber-optic cables.

Wireless cellular broadband: Often referred to as 3G, for third-generation cellular service. Provided by wireless carriers.

Wi-Fi: Provides wireless access over short ranges (a few hundred feet). Often used in home or office networks or in commercial establishments.

WiMax: Emerging technology that provides wireless access over long ranges (a few miles) through a system of towers. Clearwire provides a form of WiMax.

At Seattle's 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle stood as a symbol for what the future would bring.

Today, the landmark is signifying something no one would have ever imagined 44 years ago.

Clearwire, wireless pioneer Craig McCaw's latest venture, is officially launching a new service in Seattle that provides Internet service to the home wirelessly. The service, a form of an emerging technology called WiMax, operates through a system of towers that transmit and receive signals allowing users to be online.

To mark the event, Clearwire is hosting a laser light show from the top of the Needle around 7:15 p.m. today.

The Kirkland company, with more than 1,000 employees worldwide, is the brainchild of McCaw, the founder of McCaw Cellular Communications, which built one of the first nationwide cellphone networks. AT&T bought the company for $11.5 billion in 1994 to form AT&T Wireless, now part of Cingular Wireless.

This time, McCaw and some of his same cohorts are back cutting another cord in people's lives — the one connecting them to the Internet.

To date, the service has been launched in 31 other markets, but the rollout in the Seattle region represents the biggest geographic area the company has moved into, marking one of the most critical steps in Clearwire's three-year existence.

"It's a pretty big deal," said Gerry Purdy, the vice president and chief analyst at Frost and Sullivan, a consulting firm. "It's a test case for them to see what it is that works and what doesn't work, and to get them ready for playing in the big leagues."

Among other things, the Seattle experience should show how the technology works in a densely populated area and whether consumers, who may already have Internet access, will or will not adopt a new wireless service.

Clearwire's technology offers an alternative to DSL and cable broadband Internet access. The difference is that the service is sent through the air, which eliminates the need to install anything in the home or lay any wires. Additionally, it isn't assigned to a specific house or a business, so people can take the service with them.

The one restriction is that the service requires a modem about the size and weight of a slim hardback novel, which must be plugged into the computer and an electrical outlet. There is no setup or software to install on the computer, although Clearwire recommends that the modem be placed near a window, so it can receive a strong signal.

"You can just take this out of the store, talk to no one and it will work," said McCaw, who shares the title of Clearwire chief executive with Ben Wolff. "It's not like a cellphone, where there's all these things behind the scenes, like rate plans and mumbo-jumbo. It's the easiest."

The service is sold through stores Clearwire owns, including one opening soon in Bellevue Square, as well as through Best Buy stores, mall kiosks or online. Clearwire offers two rate plans, the main differences being speed and cost (see accompanying chart for pricing and speed information for Clearwire and other broadband alternatives in the area).

Gerri Tyler of Redmond has been using the Clearwire service for a couple of months (though the official launch is today, the service has been sold on a limited basis). As an independent distributor of nutritional supplements, she said mobility is important to her. About once a week, she takes the modem on sales calls and either plugs it in at a coffee shop, or sits with it in her car, using a cigarette-lighter adapter for power.

Only once did she have to reboot her computer when it didn't work — a stark difference, she said, from the DSL connection she had that often required her to switch her equipment off and then back on to connect.

"I was ready to be done. It's faster than what we had, and it's so much more reliable," she said.

To date, Clearwire has launched in mostly rural areas or small or midsize markets, including Bellingham, Honolulu, Eugene, Ore., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Coverage in the Seattle area stretches over a potential of 2 million people, from Marysville to Gig Harbor and as far east as Enumclaw, with some uncovered zones in between. The company has a total coverage area of 8 million people, and about 162,000 have subscribed to the service as of September.

The Seattle area will also be where Clearwire will meet some of its fiercest competition. More than 76 percent of Seattle residents have Internet access already, according to the latest statistics available from the city of Seattle — and that was two years ago.

The city created a task force to determine whether the area had sufficient Internet access for residences and businesses. It concluded last year that, in order to remain competitive, Seattle needs fiber-optic lines to the home. Unlike some other municipalities have opted to do, it did not recommend blanketing the city with Wi-Fi, another, shorter-range wireless technology.

"In terms of the Clearwire rollout, we see it as complementary to this," said Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer. "I welcome it. It adds another dimension to the competition here. It will be another choice between the cable companies and Qwest."

The move into Seattle also represents one of the largest test areas for the underlying technology.

Clearwire is using a variant of WiMax, which some call Wi-Fi on steroids.

Today, it is largely unproved under market conditions but has started to receive more attention in the past year, as major corporations have made commitments to it. Wireless giant Sprint Nextel has pledged to build WiMax systems in some areas next year.

With their experience, McCaw and his team have grabbed a lot of attention and money, raising nearly $2 billion in capital from Motorola, Intel and others to finance the venture.

Currently, the network Clearwire is building is based on fixed services, meaning a user needs to sit in one location to receive a steady connection. The next evolution will be mobile and allow people to maintain a connection while in a moving car.

Clearwire has also started to provide phone service through its service in some markets. Called voice over Internet Protocol, it uses the Internet rather than copper wires to transmit and receive calls. It will not immediately be available here.

The mobile WiMax network yet to come could provide opportunities for new applications. The first step is likely shrinking the Clearwire modem into a card that can be slipped into a laptop. Handset manufacturers are also working on getting WiMax in phones and devices that may not fit into your pocket but are smaller than laptops.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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