Verizon Intros 4G LTE Device Lineup at CES: Pricing Plans Still Unknown

January 7, 2011

LAS VEGAS — The second chapter in the Verizon 4G LTE story was unveiled Thursday at CES, at a Vegas showstopper special of a press conference where Big Red announced a mix of smartphones, tablets and portable-hotspot routers for its new, fast wireless network.

Left untold was the tale of how much consumers would eventually have to pay to use the cool new devices, all of which Verizon said would be available later in the year with some ready as early as March. While the way pricing and plans are offered will be an important conclusion, between now and when such details are revealed interested observers can busy themselves with the specifications of the forthcoming mobile devices, a list that includes four Android-based smartphones, two tablets, two portable hotspots and a couple notebook computers.

In all it is an impressive amount of new access devices for a new network, one which Verizon launched commercially back in December with a couple USB modems as the only way to connect to its Long Term Evolution-based 4G services. Samsung, an early mover in the LTE market, had the biggest offering with a phone, a tablet and a portable hotspot, with Motorola right behind with a phone and a bigger tablet offering. Also offering devices for Verizon’s new network are LG and HTC, and even corporate-world champion Cisco jumped in with a Verizon LTE version of its new tablet computer designed specifically for an enterprise customer.

Lost somewhat in the device blitz were some other important LTE announcements, including Verizon’s plan to add an additional 140 cities to its coverage list during 2011, as well as the signing of several more agreements with rural carriers who will lease spectrum from Verizon to offer their own-branded version of Verizon’s LTE that will offer compatible roaming across a wider geographical region. So while the Big Red LTE juggernaut advances apace, it still remains to be seen how the carrier will grapple with an emerging dilemma — how to sell ultra-fast powerful mobile devices (which can consume gobs of data quickly) at a price plan that is low enough to attract customers but high enough to ensure profits.

While Verizon hinted that its initial pricing forays will likely look like its initial stab at LTE data plans — $50 for 5 GB per month of downloaded data, or $80 for 10 GB — those price points may not be attractive or flexible enough to entice users to add more LTE to their portable device stack.

Clearwire: Clearing the Decks for LTE?

May 5, 2010

They say it, and we believe it: Right now, for the foreseeable future, Clearwire Corp. (Nasdaq: CLWR) is a WiMAX company, selling a WiMAX-based 4G service that by all accounts is doing quite well. But the company’s potential to add Long Term Evolution (LTE) services to its portfolio increased in probability Wednesday, with the revelation of the reversal of a legal deal with Intel that had previously prohibited Clearwire from offering anything except WiMAX until late in 2011.

Since LTE equipment still isn’t even available in commercial volumes, it’s still early days to talk about any Clearwire-to-LTE move. But the noise over such a strategy may raise in volume following Wednesday’s quarterly earnings conference call, when Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow said that the company’s previous deal with major investor Intel — which effectively would have kept Clearwire from launching any services other than WiMAX until about 2012 — had been renegotiated, and has been replaced with a structure that is much more flexible, and will allow Clearwire to move more quickly to LTE should LTE-based services and devices (like say, an LTE iPhone) take off.

While it’s going to ride the WiMAX train as long as it can, Clearwire and its partners aren’t ignoring the obvious market momentum behind the still-developing LTE standard. In fact, Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow has publicly floated the idea of harmonizing the technologies in the future, under a hybrid 4G standard that could provide for economies of scale on all fronts. Given the remote possibility of that happening, the Intel re-negotiation is a sign that Clearwire is also already taking steps to ensure it can move to LTE just as fast as any other provider, maybe even faster than some others.

What makes Clearwire and LTE such an interesting discussion is the probable ease with which the company could add LTE services to its portfolio. (Unlike Stacey H at GigaOM, I don’t think this is necessarily an either-or-game.) Given its huge spectrum position, Clearwire has enough assets to build an LTE network side-by-side with its WiMAX network — unlike AT&T and Verizon, who are already talking about repurposing spectrum from 2G and 3G to make room for 4G.

In terms of network infrastructure, both WiMAX and LTE are IP-based, so it’s a guess that much of Clearwire’s core network equipment could handle both types of traffic. Responding to questions about LTE costs on the call, Clearwire was coy but did note that of a typical site build, the portion associated with radio-specific equipment represents between 10 and 15 percent of costs — so in theory Clearwire could build itself an LTE network for a fraction of the cost of a greenfield provider starting from scratch.

There are of course many details and questions to work through — such as the fact that Clearwire’s spectrum at 2.5 GHz is much different from the 700 MHz spectrum Verizon and AT&T will be using for their planned LTE deployments. But with big LTE backers Samsung, Huawei and Cisco in Clearwire’s corner, it’s safe to assume smart people are already looking into such challenges. Another note from the call today: Clearwire announced “vendor financing deals” with two of its infrastructure partners — perhaps a sweetener now to move to LTE later?

Is Sprint’s WiMAX Phone the ‘New Trophy Handset?’

March 17, 2010

We haven’t seen the rumored WiMAX smartphone that will reportedly be announced by Sprint next week at CTIA, but someone who has told us recently that it’s a beauty, with a big screen tailored for on-the-go video. “It’s the new trophy phone,” our informant gushed. “Pretty darn amazing.”

It’s also probably not going to be available until sometime later this summer, so don’t go flushing those iPhones and Droids down the loo just yet. If you are looking for new wireless devices that might actually be closer to shipment at CTIA, you can join us in a hunt for end-user devices that do a better job of pulling in a WiMAX signal than your standard, naked USB dongle.

We’ve already shown you pictures
of Cradlepoint’s version of a portable WiMAX/Wi-Fi router that fits into a home dock with big rabbit-ear antennas to boost signal strength; expect to hear more about that home modem as well as some others from new suppliers that try to improve a problem all wireless networks face: Getting through walls. We’ll be on the lookout for one Clearwire-ready device we’ve heard is in development that is designed for businesses, with strong outdoor antennas to grab the WiMAX signal and a built-in Wi-Fi router to run the LAN inside. Any guesses to the supplier? We should know more next week.

In our recent network report on Clearwire, the company’s chief technical officer Dr. John Saw told us that Clearwire was seeing most of its network use coming from folks who were sitting inside a building, rather than on the go. And in an interview for the same report, Motorola’s WiMAX/LTE guru Bruce Brda predicted that 2010 would see multiple new entrants in the Clearwire CPE game, as the company’s open network started to attract more players than the initial contracted suppliers. Another good guess is more home modems that include integrated support for VoIP, as Clearwire and its partners look to increase the value proposition by adding services.

With a big Sprint event scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and a joint Sprint/Clearwire keynote on the schedule for Wednesday morning, it could be a big week for WiMAX in Las Vegas, so much different than the scene just two short years ago. Stay tuned here for more news and analysis before, at and after the show.