While improved video-on-demand services, targeted advertising applications and super-high-speed DOCSIS 3.0 broadband systems were headline items at the NCTA convention in New Orleans last week, perhaps the most exciting new technology on the show floor didn’t rely on cable pipes.
That was a demonstration in the Motorola booth of WiMax, the wireless broadband technology that three of the country’s largest cable operators, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, plan to use to provide voice and data services to subscribers on the go.
The WiMax services from Comcast and Time Warner will be delivered through Clearwire, a company formed by combining the fourth-generation wireless assets of Sprint Nextel and Clearwire Corp., and which counts those major cable operators and technology giants Intel and Google as investors. The new Clearwire is targeting a network deployment that will cover between 120 million and 140 million people in the U.S. by the end of 2010.
Both Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Intel CEO Paul Otellini touted Clearwire’s potential in the NCTA show’s opening session, and Motorola featured a Clearwire-enabled sport utility vehicle in its booth that was equipped with multiple WiMax radios, high-powered computers and in-car displays.
The Clearwire initiative comes after the failure of Pivot, a wireless joint venture formed in 2005 when Comcast, Time Warner, Bright House and Cox Communications teamed up with Sprint Nextel to provide a wireless-phone service that would complement cable’s wire-based video, data and telephony services. But Pivot faced operational challenges and met with myriad delays, and Sprint stopped marketing it last fall. Roberts said that Clearwire is different, as cable operators will have more control of the service and its marketing to customers.
“This feels really right,” Roberts said. “With Clearwire, we’ve got a number of companies that want to see the fastest data network get built, and get built fast.”
Cox, which won sizable amounts of spectrum in the FCC’s recent auction of 700 megahertz frequencies, is not part of Clearwire but is also said to be eyeing WiMax. Dallas Clement, VP of strategy and product management for Cox, said that Cox is exploring a number of options for using its 32 MHz of spectrum to deliver voice, video and data services but hadn’t made any decisions on technology or business model. He did confirm that Cox will definitely be offering voice services through the new spectrum.
“There’s not enough revenue in wireless if you’re not doing voice,” Clement said.
Motorola used its Clearwire-enabled SUV, which featured about $10,000 of added-on wireless gear, to demonstrate various applications including downloading songs from a joint AOL Radio and XM Radio music service; placing a phone call through the Skype Internet phone service; viewing broadband video on CNN.com; and taking a digital photo and quickly uploading it to the Flickr photo-sharing site.
The speed and quality of all the Clearwire services was impressive, reflecting WiMax’s potential data speeds of 7 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream. What’s more, since WiMax can act as a backhaul for conventional Wi-Fi broadband service, Motorola had also installed a Wi-Fi router inside the vehicle to allow laptop users with conventional Wi-Fi radios to surf the Web using the WiMax connection.
IN THE FAST LANE
According to Hossein Parandeh, director of marketing for Motorola, the WiMax link works at highway speeds, and Motorola has a speeding ticket from a demo earlier this year in Las Vegas to the tune of 75 mph to prove it. That capability could reverse the way consumers think about getting wireless Internet access on the road, where today they might drive to a Starbucks or other Wi-Fi hotspot to get online.
“With WiMax, now the hotspot itself is mobile,” Parandeh says.
Motorola also showed a range of WiMax-capable prototype radios in laptops, ultramobile PCs, and in the form of a USB dongle similar to the EVDO wireless data modems that are currently marketed by Verizon Wireless and Sprint. Intel plans to bring WiMax chips to market in laptops by the fourth quarter, Parandeh says, which could profoundly change the way cable subscribers connect with their provider and encourage them to leave the living room.
As Parandeh puts it: “You have no more excuse to be a couch potato.”