LAS VEGAS, NEV. — CTIA — I know it’s March Madness time, but a hoops analogy just doesn’t work to accurately describe the size of the can of whoop-ass that Sprint and Clearwire opened up on AT&T and Verizon here Tuesday at CTIA.
This wasn’t a Northern Iowa getting hot at the right time and busting brackets by sinking some gutsy 3-pointers. Instead, it felt more like the Tampa Bay Rays coming into the Bronx and scoring 10 runs while tossing a no-hitter at the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. This was an upset built over time, with some big bets on long-thought strategies finally coming to fruition. And it may not be the last time this happens, either.
For longtime industry observers, it was simply shocking and amazing to see the No. 3 wireless carrier — one long percieved as struggling — and its upstart WiMAX partner garner all the headlines, all the buzz and even talk some
serious smack about AT&T and Verizon at what is traditionally the two telcos’ big Vegas party.
It wasn’t just that Sprint and CEO Dan Hesse (left) announced the coolest phone of the year, a device made more impressive because of the high-speed WiMAX network it can run on; it wasn’t just that Clearwire announced a bunch of new markets for 2010 launches, including Los Angeles and Miami; and it wasn’t just that AT&T and Verizon basically had nothing new to say, in front of the biggest yearly gathering of U.S. wireless industry insiders.
It was all of that together, and how it produced a day that saw the big carriers acting timid and cautious while Sprint and Clearwire were openly gloating about their new devices and their fast, high-capacity network.
Mike Sievert, Clearwire’s chief commercial officer, capped off a day of panels and discussions on the future of 4G by basically calling BS on most of the things Verizon and AT&T had to say during the day, whether the topic was network speeds, spectral capacity, or just the ability to tell users that an “unlimited” wireless contract meant exactly that: Use all the network you want, as much as you want. “We say, use the service — you’re paying for it, so enjoy it,” said Sievert (left), in a not-so-subtle dig against AT&T and Verizon’s recent public calls for the end to all-you-can-eat pricing.
Sievert’s comments followed similar put-downs from Sprint execs made during their splashy introduction of the HTC EVO 4G, a phone whose networking and video capabilities, if they perform as advertised, put anything else on the market to shame.
After comparing the EVO 4G’s download speeds to a Verizon Droid “and the sub-par network it runs on,” Sprint execs later wowed the fanboy blogging throngs by showing the EVO acting as a Wi-Fi hotspot supplying 4G bandwidth to several devices including an iPhone 3GS, noting that their new toy “can power other smartphones of lesser capability.”
Zang! All this followed Sprint’s saucy make your iPhone 4G ad from the weekend, and a Clearwire press release that detailed how you could use Clearwire’s portable WiMAX/Wi-Fi router to make your new iPad connect in a 4G fashion. How did all this happen? The simple answer is that by combining WiMAX with an unmatched depth of licensed spectrum, Sprint and Clearwire were able to leapfrog the incumbent giants, whose bet on a still-developing technology and some poor network management are now coming home to roost.
While LTE is still a work in progress — even AT&T, which plans to use LTE eventually, slammed Verizon this past weekend for moving too quickly to deploy it — its trailing status doesn’t mean that companies aren’t busy trying to build LTE products as quickly as possible. Over the long run, any oddsmaker in Vegas would still give the edge to AT&T and Verizon, since their sheer size means that any technology they pick — like LTE — will eventually succeed in some fashion, either by performing well or through the brute force of massive marketing campaigns that Sprint and Clearwire can’t match. And while the big incumbents may be spectrum-constrained for the next few years, after that the FCC’s recent plan to free up more wireless airwaves for broadband use should allow them to build a portfolio as big as or bigger than Sprint and Clearwire’s current holdings.
But for the near-term future, you may hear a lot more from Verizon and AT&T about the need to manage networks more efficiently, or about how unlimited contracts are unsustainable. Sprint and Clearwire, meanwhile, will be busy trying to find more ways to load up their network, with no end in sight to their unlimited data, high-speed connection plans. Acting like the bold mouse who isn’t afraid of the elephant, Sievert commented near the end of his talk that when it comes to price and performance value, in the near-term future “I have a hard time imagining our competitors offering what we offer today.”
Double zang! The party here should continue Wednesday, when Sprint CEO Dan Hesse (whose boarder shoes are pictured below) and Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow share the stage for a morning keynote. Expect some more gloating, at the big carriers’ expense. And don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.
(all photos by Paul Kapustka, (c) Sidecut Reports, 2010. Dan Hesse’s shoes, below, by Vans)