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Can Clearwire build a TD-LTE ecosystem?


Clearwire’s grand plan to switch LTE depends on a lot of ‘ifs’—if it can secure funding, if it can find wholesale customers for its unique flavor and limited deployment of LTE and if it continues to enjoy the favor of its primary customer and principle owner Sprint. But the biggest ‘if’ of them all is whether an ecosystem will develop around its 4G technology: TD-LTE.

Clearwire’s been down this path before. You could say Clearwire and Sprint were in part successful building a WiMAX ecosystem. They got their smartphones, their modems and their embedded netbooks and they didn’t even have to charge that much of a premium for them. But if the Clearwire/Sprint ecosystem had truly been a success there wouldn’t be any reason for them to make the switch to LTE.

WiMAX as a mobile broadband technology has failed. Now Clearwire faces the equally daunting task of generating momentum around time division-long-term evolution (TD-LTE).

As a quick refresher, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, MetroPCS, Bell Canada, NTT DoCoMo—pretty much everybody—is deploying LTE in its frequency division duplexing configuration, meaning the uplink and the downlink are split into separate channels. Clearwire’s TD-LTE follows WiMAX’s unpaired spectrum configuration, alternating between uplink and downlink. That means any device using Clearwire’s network will not only have to be tuned to Clearwire’s 2.5 GHz bands, but it will have to a completely different radio than other LTE operators. Sure, LTE is in the name of its technology, but to the typical 4G device maker, TD-LTE might as well be called WiMAX.

So why is Clearwire bothering? If it’s going to remain on a technology island, why swap one islet in the ocean of mobile broadband for another? Clearwire obviously hopes that this new island through some seismic miracle will grow into the continent that was supposed to be WiMAX.

Clearwire does have some reasons to be optimistic. In the last three weeks, three Saudi Arabian operators launched commercial TD-LTE services, making them the first commercial networks using the technology in the world. Saudi Arabia and Clearwire hardly make an ecosystem, but it’s a start. Furthermore, on the infrastructure side there’s a lot more support for TD-LTE than there is for WiMAX as all of the major vendors’ line up to take advantage of the new market. Of course, all of these vendors were just as gung ho about WiMAX before they canned their product lines several years ago.

But Clearwire’s main reason for optimism is the fact that for a lot of operators there’s no other choice but TD-LTE. There are dozens upon dozens of major operators around the world with unpaired spectrum just like Clearwire’s. The hope in the WiMAX community was those operators would embrace WiMAX early and blow the barn doors off of LTE while the latter was in its formative stages. Those operators never rose to the challenge—or the bait, whichever way you want to look at it. But they still have that unpaired spectrum. They face the same conundrum as Clearwire. If they want to use their spectrum in the most efficient way possible, they have to deploy TD-LTE.

While all of the activity on the Arabian peninsula is encouraging, Clearwire’s eyes are firmly trained on China where the world’s largest operators sit on the biggest pots of TDD spectrum. Earlier this month, Clearwire announced an initiative with China Mobile, the world’s largest operator, to drive the TD-LTE ecosystem. Clearwire and China Mobile don’t just share the same technology, they share roughly the same band, meaning a device maker could sell the same smartphones to both operators (obviously with some software tweaks). In general, these kinds of announcements don’t mean much—the history of WiMAX is littered with such ecosystem-building partnerships. But the message to device makers is pretty clear: if you make a TD-LTE phone you have instant access to the world’s two largest wireless markets.

It probably won’t be hard to convince Samsung or HTC to build off a few one-off TD-LTE devices. The real test will be Apple. Apple doesn’t like to differentiate its product lines much, preferring to sell the exact same device with the fewest possible everywhere in the world. The fact that it made an exception for Verizon Wireless shows the importance of the CDMA market. Apple could afford to ignore WiMAX due its lack of global penetration, so it did. If it can afford to ignore TD-LTE, you can bet it will. The highest priority for Clearwire’s emerging TD-LTE ecosystem should be to convince Apple to create TD-LTE variants of the iPhone and iPad or bite the bullet and build future LTE devices dual-mode. An ecosystem without the world’s single-most popular smartphone isn’t really an ecosystem at all.


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