WiMax launch in Atlanta is biggest city so far in Clearwire roadmap

Clearwire Corp. officially celebrates the launch of its WiMax service in Atlanta on Tuesday, but the formal launch in its largest city so far still has experts wondering how the fast wireless Internet service will catch on around the nation.

Clearwire, based in Kirkland, Wash., has an ambitious plan to roll out WiMax service nationwide under the Clear brand over several years, with backing from major players such as Intel Corp., Google Inc., Sprint Nextel Inc. and cable providers such as Time Warner Cable.

The cities of Portland, Ore., and Baltimore have held official WiMax launches, but other cities such as Chicago have been provisioning the technology for more than a year without a formal launch party. Still, Clearwire in March said it plans to have WiMax rolled out in eight cities, including Atlanta, this year, and four more in 2010.

The Atlanta launch was described in a full-page advertisement in today's Atlanta Journal and Constitution, although there is no separate mention on the Clearwire Web site. A public celebration at the city's Atlantic Station is planned.

A Clearwire official couldn't be reached for comment, although the company said in May there would be an Atlanta launch sometime this month. In fact, Clearwire has been signing up customers in advance of a formal launch, based on various reports.

Clear services were also quietly launched in Las Vegas, with an official launch planned for this summer, according to the FierceBroadbandWireless site.

Jeffrey Kagan, an independent analyst based in Atlanta, has been a trial customer of Clear for two weeks, and remarked in an e-mail, "so far this technology works great." He reported getting fast speeds of 5Mbit/sec. to 9Mbit/sec. from a WiMax card inserted into his laptop.

He also noted that when he leaves Atlanta, he loses the signal. In the future, Kagan said he hopes to use a laptop card that will automatically move from a Sprint 3G wireless signal to WiMax and back again, when needed.

"WiMax is similar to Wi-Fi, but the coverage is an entire city compared to just a store," Kagan noted.

Whether those WiMax-capable cities remain islands unto themselves is the big question facing Clearwire. "Success for Clearwire depends on how they advertise and market and how the competition responds," Kagan said. "I don't think the competitors will react at this point unless and until Clearwire starts winning business from them."

Clearwire holds its annual stockholder meeting Wednesday, but analysts don't expect much more information on the timetable for Clear city rollouts.

One WiMax competitor, AT&T Inc., is planning to offer LTE (Long Term Evolution) as its next-generation wireless service. An AT&T spokesman based in Atlanta said the big question facing wireless customers will be how widespread WiMax service will be. "LTE will be everywhere," he said.

Generally, LTE is not expected to be broadly available until after 2012, and WiMax-backers see WiMax as widely available as much as a year to two years earlier.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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