If WiMax ever had a shot at relevance, that chance is now gone. Four of Sprint's 13 board members -- including Sprint's CEO -- have resigned from Clearwire, a firm owned 54 percent by Sprint that was deploying WiMax wireless broadband technology and dealing the service throughout the United States.
Should the Sprint action be the first stage of a withdrawal from the partner, it's doubtful Clearwire could succeed on its own. And because Sprint was planning to use the Clearwire cell towers for its WiMax "4G" service, it's hard to believe Sprint won't now simply abandon WiMax and shift to the LTE technology that other U.S. carriers are planning to deploy. In fact, earlier this year, Sprint said it was likely to deploy LTE as well as WiMax; don't be surprised if that changes to LTE only.
The reason for Sprint's board pullout is unclear, with the company only citing "antitrust" concerns. But one telecom industry insider told me the issue was that Clearwire's management was considering approaching T-Mobile for an investment, which would have put the two U.S. also-ran carriers -- Sprint and T-Mobile -- in a shotgun marriage around WiMax.
The cellular industry trade press -- Wireless Week, RCR News -- and eWeek have all reported that the German giant T-Mobile has been looking at buying Sprint, as well as buying into Clearwire to get a faster time to market for Clearwire's LTE (not WiMax) technolopgy, which Clearwire is now testing. All these scenarios suggest that Sprint's strategy as a company or just in terms of WiMax is up in the air.
Whatever is going on in the boardrooms, it appears to me that no one with any real money is left to make WiMax a reality beyond the mainly small markets it is now in. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless have al passed, as have had major European and Asian carriers. Clearwire's future was in doubt a few years ago until Sprint -- which itself is struggling -- bought a majority stake. Intel has been pushing WiMax for years in hopes of selling WiMax chips in computers and peripherals, but the only WiMax-capable smartphones available are the HTC Evo 4G and Samsung Epic 4G sold by Sprint, so that chip market is limited. There are also a couple WiMax modems available to attach to PCs, but still no significant market for Intel.
All of this is a good thing. The United States has been plagued for years by a technology split in its cellular services, with AT&T and T-Mobile using GSM-derived technologies and Verizon Wireless and Sprint using CDMA. The two technologies are incompatible, so users became locked into one or the other, PC makers gingerly tested and then stopped selling laptops with either technology built in (since users wouldn't buy laptops that couldn't switch networks), and carriers had less ability to share infrastructure deployments, so U.S. capacity and speeds tended to lag behind those available in Europe and much of the rest of the world, where governments standardized on GSM years ago.
So the likely death of WiMax (which is a good technology) would mean that all four U.S. carriers are likely move to LTE -- Verizon and AT&T have already begun doing so, Sprint is testing it, and T-Mobile seems to be loking for a way in -- for higher-speed, better-coverage 4G networks. That means carriers can share towers in less populated areas, equipment makers can produce more devices at lower costs, and users perhaps will be able to switch among carriers as easily as the rest of the world can. (Having spent a month in Europe recently, I was blown away by how easy it was to change 3G SIMs on a smartphone and even an iPad -- except for France and Belgium, the result is cheaper 3G data than in the United States, better coverage, more pay-as-you-go and plan options, and increased flexibility all around.)
Another good sign: the seeming lack of interest by telecom vendors in the "whitespace" wireless broadband spectrum that the FCC evicted analog TV broadcasters from. Cambridge Consultants reports that Dell, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, and Qualcomm all say the technology is too expensive to deploy due to federal anti-interference requirements. I'm sure another use will be found for this spectrum, but not soon enough to give the cellular carriers an opportunity to create an unfortunate fork in the wireless technology that smartphones, tablets, and the like will utilize for years to come.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 11 to clarify the details of Sprint's Clearwire involvement and note the additional theory for Sprint's partial boardrom pullout from Clearwire.
This article, "WiMax is now likely to die -- thank goodness!," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.