Even though Sprint only recently announced mobile WiMAX (IEEE 802.16e-2005) is their 4G wireless technology of choice, the service provider has been working with broadband wireless technology in various forms since the late 1990s.
During that time, Sprint has become the largest holder of 2.5 GHz MMDS spectrum in the United States. In partnership with Intel, Motorola and Samsung, the company’s overarching goal is to not only build out a nationwide network, but also drive innovations in mobile WiMAX silicon to support computing, portable multimedia and other consumer devices. Bin Shen, VP of Broadband Strategies for Sprint, recently sat down with Telecommunications Editor Sean Buckley to discuss Sprint’s WiMAX vision.
Q. Sprint was one of the earliest adopters of broadband wireless, beginning in the late 1990s with the MMDS craze. How has the market evolved since those early days?
A. In general, we think the mobile broadband [industry will move into] prime time in the next 2-5 years. The 2.5 GHz [band] is a good medium to get us there. MMDS has a long history. Initially, it was used [to provide] an alternative cable video service. Over time, people realized that the spectrum would be better used for wireless broadband service, so that’s why the FCC has gone through this process to reallocate spectrum that’s more conducive for broadband service. Before the band map was very narrow and interleaved with each other so it was very hard to deploy broadband technology on that complicated map, but now it’s much more clean and conducive for us to put a new network on top of that. Also, this will drive network efficiency because with the more bandwidth we will not only be able to improve the performance, but also the capacity and cost level.
From an overall market point of view, there are two fundamental trends changing the life of communications. One is Internet adoption, which has emerged only over the last 10 years. The other is wireless service, which fundamentally changed how people communicate from a voice perspective. Now, wireless broadband takes these two trends to another level—combining the Internet pervasiveness with the power and freedom of wireless. What does that mean? Internet adoption has been primarily in the business sector and in the home environment. Through your own life, you can ask: ‘What happens if I had Internet come with me all of the time?’ [Having the] Internet with you all of the time does not mean you have to have a laptop all of the time, but it just needs to be accessible. Today, in my car I have a navigation system, an XM radio, and what would be nice is if on the same screen I could touch it and get access to the Internet right away. What would happen if I had an iPod connected to the network, which would allow me to do video downloading, searching and gaming, too? Those are very pervasive [applications that] don’t have to be accessed through a laptop case. If you provide broadband connectivity everywhere else enabled by mobile WiMAX, it will be another wave of growth of the Internet and mobility market.
Q. With Clearwire making investments in building out a broadband wireless network, do you feel more encouraged that this market is poised for real growth?
A. First of all, I don’t know the specific plans of these companies. I recognize that Clearwire is using NextNet’s technology, which is not WiMAX. In the future, if they move to a mobile WiMAX version hopefully that would be good for the industry. Clearly, the more people adopting [mobile WiMAX] the better ecosystem we will have. Overall, our position is very strong. We have the largest special holdings in 2.5 GHz and have a lot of resources to build a high-quality, nationwide network.
Q. Do you feel better that there’s now a global standard for mobile WiMAX? Also, are you satisfied with the products and dedication from larger vendors to help build a WiMAX ecosystem?
A.Well, we don’t have a religious belief on standards or proprietary [solutions]. It really depends on [the] business model. Proprietary [solutions] can give you differentiation, and standard [solutions] can give you economy of scale. It all depends on what business you want to run. Nextel has a great franchise with iDEN. It’s unique and customers really value that. For the 4G models, we like to have open standards because it fits into our business model. We want to get all of the consumer electronic devices embedded with WiMAX chips, so it’s important that everyone is working on the same standard to ensure we can build an open ecosystem to carry things forward.
Q. Do you see the WiMAX technology as a complementary element to your current EVDO Rev A rollout?
A. It’s very complementary. The target [market] segment for WiMAX is relatively new to the telecom industry. It will be more computer, entertainment and multimedia devices. Today, traditional 3G wireless technologies are really not targeting those devices in a large scale. Our EVDO business is primarily based on our handset platform, so we think that’s a great technology that will carry us for the long way to use mobile WiMAX to create a new category and devices. There may be some multimode devices [that have] CDMA, WIMAX, and even WiFi in the future. In those cases it will be complementary too. Where there’s heavy traffic, we can load that traffic onto the WiMAX network, and where we have extensive coverage of CDMA, it can provide a seamless user experience throughout our network coverage.
Q. Given the scope of Sprint’s proposed rollout, what do you believe will be the major challenges in making the transition to the 4G WiMAX network?
A. There are a lot of challenges. First of all, it’s getting the initial marketing message out by helping the customers understand the value proposition of WiMAX. We do have some great companies involved in this effort, such as Samsung, Motorola, and Intel, to help to create that marketplace. The second challenge is an operational and management issue. We are on an aggressive timeline, so we really needed to make sure everything is in place. We need to prepare cell sites, transition the spectrum, and prepare the devices. I don’t see any significant issues, but it’s really a pretty big task.
Q. What do you believe will be the biggest difference between this new service and the first-generation broadband wireless services?
A. When the legacy Sprint organization deployed broadband wireless, it was [with a] proprietary technology, which was probably ahead of its time. It was really targeting the home environment. The mobile WiMAX network we will build will [enable] mobile, portable, nomadic and stationary usage. The value proposition is really not about providing a broadband home, which we can still do, but we can also provide a mobile bundle.
Q. Beyond Internet access, what kind of applications do you envision running over the 4G network?
A.Well, I just talked to a close partner and a customer of Sprint/Nextel, who told me they came up with 25-30 potential new applications. When you have this kind of capability in people’s hands, the applications will mushroom. Overall, we have a vision called the wireless interactive media service. Our vision is really driving the visual type of communications through these kind of broadband networks [i.e.] video chat, video blocking combined with web blocking, and any type of streaming, and on- line gaming. Those are fundamental capabilities we need to build into the offering. On top of that you will see those kinds of capabilities evolving into different types of vertical or horizontal solutions because some consumers will use it one way, while others will use it another way. We also have some momentum in the public safety market, where there’s a lot of video monitoring, location mapping and the 3D research [applications]. Those kinds of heavy bandwidth applications all can be delivered in a more economical way on mobile WiMAX.
Q. What kind of feedback are you getting about the ecosystem and proposal overall?
A. The concept is very powerful. People get it right away. It depends on the market position. Some companies are struggling to deal with their own core business and regulatory issues, while other companies are freer to do a lot of things. You will see that mobile WiMAX has a lot of interesting movement in Asia and Eastern Europe.