Sprint and Company Cover Their Broadband Bases

Today, eWEEK’s Clint Boulton is reporting on the latest efforts to save the Sprint-Clearwire nationwide WiMax wireless data network scheme.

Back in July, Sprint and Clearwire struck up an arrangement in which the two companies would work together to build out and maintain a nationwide wireless network based on the years-old, often-demoed-but-too-seldom-spotted-in-the-wild WiMax technology.

In November, the deal fell through, although both companies maintained that they would continue on with their individual WiMax efforts, with potential inter-network roaming agreements.

Now, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Sprint and Clearwire are in talks with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks–the country’s first, second and sixth largest cable TV providers–to resuscitate the national WiMax network.

According to the report, Intel and Google are each prepared to make significant investments in the scheme, as well.

Setting aside Google and Intel, both of which stand to benefit from any development that connects more people to the Internet and gives people more reasons to buy computer equipment, it appears sensible enough for this particular group of wireless and cable companies to push a third major broadband option to ride alongside cable and DSL.

That’s because while individual cable providers enjoy duopolist or monopolist status in their particular fiefdoms, they don’t enjoy the same national reach as do the major cellular carriers. Sprint may be a major cellular carrier, but Sprint lacks the fixed broadband assets that AT&T and Verizon boast.

However, while the WiMax effort from Sprint et al would appear to help cover the companies’ broadband bases, and while I’d love to see another broadband option emerge, I’m not convinced that a national WiMax network will manage to succeed.

The trouble is that all the telephone, cable, satellite, and wireless companies are in the same business–that of data delivery. If today’s bit barons are paying attention, they should be able to see that the average consumer of data delivery services is spending his or her money very inefficiently:

You pay for a landline;
You pay for wireless voice;
You pay for broadband Internet at home;
Your company pays for Internet connectivity;
You pay for cable or satellite TV;
You (may) pay for wireless data;
You (may) pay for Wi-Fi hotspot access;
You (may) pay for satellite radio;

Every one of these services can be or already is provided through the Internet, and it won’t be long before businesses and consumers start figuring out ways to shorten their data service bill pay lists without giving up too much of what they require.

Today, the average data services consumer could probably cut his or her data bills significantly with a bit of technological cleverness–the sort of cleverness that comes in pre-packed, ready-to-use form in the technology products of the near future.

A data services shake-out is coming, and it’s not clear to me whether the wireless, long-range, mobility-amenable benefits of WiMax can outweigh the technology’s woeful lack of penetration.

In my opinion, the much more promising route to inexpensive, ever-present broadband runs through unlicensed spectrum, perhaps in the form of the “white space” scheme that strange bedfellows Google and Microsoft are pushing.

Of course, this route is currently far more vaporous than WiMax, but the knack of unlicensed models to admit all comers means that risks associated with new products are spread more broadly, and there’s more opportunity for organic solutions to develop for the problems that pop up along the way.