Thoughts on Clearwire

In this post, I share some of my thoughts on Clearwire’s presence in Portland, both as it relates to Portland and to Personal Telco. I stress that this is in no way a review of the service or a technical critique, as I’ve not used it extensively, nor do I have any in depth knowledge of their deployment. I’m talking here about the social, cultural and economic elements of their entry into the Portland market, and my opinions on how they might succeed or fail.

Sharing Not Allowed

[Update] We have been told by Bill Macfarlane from Clear that sharing IS allowed, and they have been selling service to many places specifically to operate hotspots.

My understanding is that sharing your Clear connection is expressly disallowed by their Acceptable Use Policy. In light of this, Clear is not a boon to those interested in hosting PTP nodes, or otherwise setting up hotspots in areas where DSL or Cable service is unavailable. While I find this disappointing, it is in line with the other major ISPs that operate in Portland, Qwest and Comcast, who both, by my reading, disallow sharing. It is also in line with the data plans of all the major wireless carriers.

Target Market

To me, Clearwire’s largest challenge is how they position themselves in the wireless and broadband markets. In terms of connection speed and availability, Clear looks best when compared to Edge and 3G wireless data services. Like these services, Clear promises an always-on data connection to laptops within the service area through the use of a fairly unobtrusive wireless card. If the current speeds hold with more users, Clear should be a compelling alternative to 3G and especially Edge, as it would provide a 1M+ service, where 3G seems to max out around 500k and Edge is little more than dial-up.

The potential problem for Clear is that smartphones have been steadily replacing laptops for many people’s on-the-go communication. Laptops are now typically only used in fixed locations such as airports and coffee shops, where WiFi connections tend to be readily available–and generally free in Portland, obviating the need for an additional subscription data plan. Additionally, smartphones usually come bundled with data services from the carrier, and are generally not capable of using peripherals such as WiMax cards, meaning that these users will not have compelling reasons to adopt Clear accounts, regardless of the speed benefits that the service would represent.

There is the possibility that smartphone manufacturers will offer phones that include WiMax chips, however, these are likely to remain niche products, similar to push-to-talk phones, since Sprint, by far the weakest national wireless carrier, will likely be the only carrier requesting such phones, at least until Verizon or AT&T develop their own 4G offerings.

Clearwire’s home service is probably well priced for users who do not subscribe to cable television, home phone or other services that provide bundled discounts on broadband. The lowest tier may also attract current dial-up users who do not otherwise use their home phone lines, as $20 represents at least a $5-10 discount over home phone service and a dial-up account, in Portland. Clear may also be invaluable to users who currently do not have wired options for broadband service, though it is unclear, to me, to what extent service availability rather than affordability remains a serious issue in Portland, so this benefit may be one and the same with my previous point.

Overall, as a fixed service, Clear is not game-changing or particularly novel, and I think it is unlikely that they will become a major player in Portland’s home and business broadband market. The appeal of their service will also wane as cable and (hopefully) fiber deliver exponentially higher speeds.

Performance Under Load

By far the biggest technical challenge for any new service is how it performs once it reaches thousands of subscribers. Currently, everything I’ve heard indicates Clear is performing as advertised, but that is, of course, with relatively few users. Clearwire’s infrastructure has a few potential points of failure:

1. Available bandwidth to the Internet. This is a fairly straightforward challenge, and one that should be very easy to improve as needed. Clearwire is positioned in one or more datacenters, where they likely subscribe to Tier One bandwidth providers. Within reason, accessing additional bandwidth is as easy as reconfiguring the circuit. Usage is monitored and adjustments can likely be made as needed. Like most (if not all) providers, Clearwire’s bandwidth will eventually be oversold, meaning that they sell more capacity than they actually have and bank on the expectation that only a fraction of their subscribers will use the service at the same time. Unless economic factors lead Clearwire to skimp on bandwidth, the network will likely not be oversold to the point that it will affect subscribers, as bandwidth expenses should be a relatively small component of Clearwire’s operating costs.

2. Throughput at the node. The greater challenge, especially with a wireless service, is the available throughput at the node (in this case, Clear tower sites). Clearwire’s technology should be more effective at managing client and backhaul connections (which may not be wireless) than MetroFi’s, but even so, there will be intractable technical limitations in the event that too many subscribers are attempting to access an individual tower (or radio). There’s no reason to believe that Clearwire hasn’t anticipated this by building more capacity than they expect to need in the initial years, and in fact, this is likely the case. Nonetheless, as I believe that this issue was responsible for much of the user dissatisfaction with MetroFi’s network, it bears mention as it has the potential to bring a service to its knees if it is poorly managed. As with their Internet backhaul, Clearwire will be oversubscribing their transmitters. The same calculus goes into it–that you won’t have every user active at the same time. Increasing tower capacity is more costly and not as easy as adding bandwidth, but with planning on the technical and financial sides, there is really no excuse for letting this degrade an individual user’s experience.

Net Neutrality

Clear’s Terms of Service are very, well, clear, they don’t give you Net Neutrality. Of course, neither does Comcast, and though some DSL providers might, they certainly aren’t going out of their way to support Net Neutrality. Anyone hoping that Clearwire’s competition would create a market that is more responsive to customer desires is probably going to be disappointed. By hewing to the status quo, Clearwire certainly hasn’t done anything wrong, but they don’t stand out either. This is a great example of why Personal Telco will continue to educate on, advocate for and build community networks. The best way to have a communications infrastructure that is responsive to your needs is to build it yourself.

Clearwire is not MetroFi

This should be obvious, but it seems like a lot of people (including a lot of “experts”) have wrapped together any project that seeks to provide wireless Internet access to an entire metro area together, regardless of the technology used or the parties involved. For all its failures, the MetroFi service was, to me at least, a much more interesting project from a technical standpoint. They attempted to build a city-wide network using technology that was nearly all unlicensed, which is similar to what Personal Telco volunteers have done over the years. Their motives may have been different and they certainly structured their business in a way that I would not personally have recommended, but on the technical side, watching them try and fail was fascinating.

Clear doesn’t hold the same interest for me, because I expect it to work, basically, as advertised. I’m sure there will be some business or customer relations hiccups, but, as far as I can tell, they are basically using licensed WiMax exactly as the engineers designed it. As a business test case, it will be interesting to see if Clearwire can compete with the wireless carriers for mobile Internet service, especially as their success will largely be tied to devices that don’t yet exist, but as a technical experiment, it just doesn’t feel very experimental. My guess is that Clearwire will succeed, however modestly, by still being here in five years, as long as Verizon or AT&T doesn’t introduce a competing high speed WiMax service that gobbles up most of the market share.

Personal Telco, of course, will continue to be here as well, educating Portlanders about the power and value of community networks, answering questions about wireless technology and maybe, if we realize as a community what’s good for us, leading the initiative to build a city-wide, public fiber infrastructure to provide equal access, and future-proof service to the entire city.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on Clearwire”

  1. Mike,

    Very well written Michael!

    I would only add that in the long run, I believe, we are simply moving through technology and social stages. In the near term what Clearwire has created is a more advanced form of a wireless cellular data network; 4G. What it isn’t is a long term broadband solution for business and home. For that, Verizon’s FIOS (Fiber) is the direction the industry is going.

    For the truly mobile user, Clear will soon be joined by AT&T & Verizon’s 4G cellular data & voice networks (LTE). The question is will the Clear head start be enough to give them a foothold in the mobile market.

    Then the real long term question becomes how do we as a society recognize the need for everyone to have access to real broadband and when will it become another utility? Will we decide to create our own publicly owned network or will it be built, owned and controlled by a private organization?

    Keep up the great work Michael, Russell and everyone!

    Rick Lindahl

  2. It’s ok to have a comment.

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