As promised, here is our extended interview from last week’s phone conversation with Xohm president Barry West, Sprint’s point man on all things WiMax. In this edited transcript West talks about three new markets where Sprint is already building tower sites, as well as the problems Apple’s iPhone 3G users seem to be experiencing (which didn’t surprise him). West also talks about the progress in the Clearwire-Sprint WiMax merger, the devices in the Xohm pipeline and the new network’s open architecture plans.
Sidecut Reports: With the first Xohm launch scheduled for September in Baltimore, can you give us the state of the state of the network?
Barry West: We have more than 1,000 sites on air, a month ahead of our internal target date! It is actually 1,066 sites now. And in typical fashion I am increasing the target. But we are having a bit of an internal celebration today.
Sidecut Reports: Are these sites in all the three announced markets [Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C.]?
Barry West: We’re actually working in more than three. There’s Boston, Philadelphia and Dallas/Fort Worth, we are working in all of those. Half of the sites [built so far] are in Chicago, that is our most advanced build market.
Sidecut Reports: It sounds like you have overcome the backhaul issues that delayed the initial planned launch.
Barry West: Yes. We recently did 25 sites in one day. This is one of those logistics things [putting up sites]. When you get the funnel going, it really works for you.
Sidecut Reports: Are you using Clearwire’s microwave backhaul strategy?
Barry West: Yes. When it comes to microwave [for backhaul], we like it too. We are working together, as much as the FCC and DOJ allow us to work more closely. We’re very much on a common [infrastructure] plan. And we liked their [microwave] application better than ours, so we switched.
Sidecut Reports: Is there a hard launch date you can share with us?
Barry West: We’re launching in September. Right now we’re going through a device and application testing list, and heavy testing of back-office systems. We don’t expect to have any reason not to launch. The most important thing is that the [tower] sites are built.
For the Baltimore network — I drove it last week, and we are seeing 3-to-5 Mbps speeds on the download. That’s on a small antenna, on a [PC] aircard in a laptop, so it’s working very well.
Sidecut Reports: Will that be the advertised speeds at launch?
Barry West: It’s a pretty average speed for that network overall. But it’s also very important to set the right expectations with customers. This is not a cellular network, not on day one. It’s really a hot spot the size of a city. So we have a very good coverage prediction tool — when people sign up for the service, we’ll make them go through a process where they say where they’re going to use the device. It will tell them whether there’s coverage there or not.
We never want the customer to be misled. You see a lot of quoted [wireless] data rates out there that look like they are for reception close to the cell tower, in non-loaded conditions. The reality is, you’re not going to get that. On our network we have seen download speeds as fast as 11 Mbps, close to the towers. But there’s no point of telling people 11 Mbps, because in the end you are limited by the devices. Again it’s about setting realistic expectations.
Sidecut Reports: Do the problems with Apple’s iPhone 3G surprise you?
Barry West: I’ve been predicting that for a long time. When you look at loading a network, it’s very difficult to support the kind of apps that are on an iPhone. It’s a challenge. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that they would have problems. I think 3G is really a tease technology — when the conditions are optimal, it works really well. But knowing you can only get it some times is really aggravating.
Sidecut Reports: What devices will be ready for the September launch?
Barry West: We’ll have in what we call category 1 — meaning devices that we buy, and sell through our distribution — a Zyxel modem, a ZTE modem, a ZTE USB card, and a Samsung aircard. Very shortly after launch, we should see the Nokia [wimax tablet].
Sidecut Reports: There seemed to be a lot of device vendors backing WiMax at the recent Intel Developer Forum.
Barry West: It was really nice to see the PC OEMs committed to embedding WiMax, including Dell. We have north of 20 laptops [with embedded chips] going through our labs for testing. We’re very pleased how that’s going. Embedded is a good cost structure for us. We’re also working with getting Sprint’s 3G/4G cards on the network — we’ll see those hopefully before the end of the year.
Sidecut Reports: How are you getting along with the folks from Clearwire?
Barry West: We spent the whole day yesterday working on plans for next year. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve been able to get into a routine. We are the new company — we both bring complementary skill sets in. For instance they have been in the marketplace for four years, and it’s nice to leverage that learning.
Sidecut Reports: What is the reception for the New Clearwire among the financial community?
Barry West: It’s still a very tough market from a Wall Street standpoint. When get to an analyst conference, you still can hear that the 700 MHz spectrum is better. But what about if you don’t have enough of it? Trying to explain that difference to financial types is difficult. It’s still not appreciated. But now AT&T, they of course understand the value of spectrum.
Sidecut Reports: Is there still a software developer program for your networks?
Barry West: Our business model is very open. If they wanted to build applications [for the network], then Apple, Microsoft or Google could just do it. Nokia is very proud of their brand, so they will be offering their own services. We’re encouraging that. If Vonage wanted to be higher on the QoS stack, we would help make that available even though it’s a competing product. It’s significantly different that we have the ability to do that.
We’ve been working on the open architecture, trying to draw attention and partner with people. The best thing for us is to drive a lot of traffic to this network as fast as we can.
Sidecut Reports: Can you tell us the pricing plans yet?
Barry West: I can’t tell you. But we are printing collateral marketing material now. It’s pretty exciting. There’s lots of buzzing in the building.