Clearwire plans Silicon Valley 'sandbox' WiMax network

Partners Google, Intel and Cisco are backing the plan for a developer testbed

Clearwire is teaming up with Google, Cisco Systems and Intel to build a WiMax network in Silicon Valley for software developers to try out new applications on the fourth-generation mobile broadband technology.

The network will cover the three companies' campuses and the region in between them and will span roughly 20 square miles (52 square kilometers), Clearwire cofounder and Co-Chairman Ben Wolff said in a keynote address at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas.

Clearwire plans to reach 120 million U.S. residents with a national WiMax network by the end of next year, but today it has only announced commercial service in two cities.

There are only about 30 devices approved to work on that network, though the company expects 100 to be available by year's end. As the first carrier to roll out the new technology on a network of this scale, Clearwire needs to encourage attractive applications for subscribers to use.

Intel has been the biggest single vendor backing WiMax and plans to bring the new system into device chipsets alongside Wi-Fi.

Like Intel, Google was a major investor in the creation of the new Clearwire, which was formed last year through the merger of the original startup Clearwire and Sprint Nextel. Google will be delivering online applications as part of Clearwire's service.

But Cisco hasn't been closely associated with Clearwire, though the network equipment giant has gotten into WiMax through its acquisition of Navini Networks in 2007. At that time, the company said it saw the greatest potential for WiMax in the developing world.

Application developers will have free access to the network for at least a year. Wolff did not discuss any public access to the Silicon Valley network. Clearwire has forecast expanding its commercial WiMax service, called Clear, to the San Francisco Bay Area next year.

WiMax is designed to deliver multiple megabits per second to stationary and mobile users. In tests on its Portland, Oregon, network, Clearwire found an average downstream data rate of 6.5Mb per second and at peak rates of 19Mbps in moving vehicles, Wolff said in the keynote. Actual speeds to commercial subscribers can vary based on how carriers divide up coverage.

But the key to mobile competition now is capacity, not speed, Wolff said. A carrier can deliver more speed to fewer subscribers or serve more customers with less bandwidth, but either way, more capacity means a greater ability to offer service, he said.

That attitude fits Clearwire's position as the holder of vast amounts of spectrum, the result of Clearwire and Sprint combining their holdings in the 2.5GHz range. The carrier has an average of 120MHz of spectrum across the U.S. In cities where it has that much capacity, Clearwire theoretically can deliver 540Mbps of peak downlink bandwidth per sector, Wolff said.

A provider with 40GHz, the minimum for 4G service, will be able to deliver just 180Mbps, he said. In addition, Clearwire's WiMax provides one-quarter to one-third of the latency of 3G networks.

But he downplayed the differences between WiMax and LTE, the other major 4G technology, which most observers believe will outstrip WiMax in carrier adoptions.

"I don't see a lot of differentiation in the way the 4G technologies are going to work and compete with one another. What I do see is, there's a tremendous difference between 4G and 3G, 2G, or any of the other technologies that are out there," Wolff said.

Wolff highlighted Clear Spot, the "personal mobile hotspot" that Clearwire announced on Monday. The small, portable router uses WiMax as its connection to the Internet and can share that connection with as many as eight nearby devices using Wi-Fi. Consumers can install a Clear Spot in their homes or take it with them. A video during the keynote showed one on a car's dashboard.

The device gives users a way to take advantage of the Clearwire service without having individual devices with WiMax radios. Beginning early this month, the Clear Spot will be available in Clear stores, at authorized dealers and online for US$139.

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