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McCaw Clears the Wires

Industry veteran Craig McCaw is back with a new venture called Clearwire Inc. and attempting to crack the tough nut of the high-speed wireless broadband market.

McCaw -- who created the first national cellphone network in the U.S. before he sold it to AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) in the mid-90s -- will head up the new venture as chairman and CEO.

McCaw launched Clearwire today at the Wireless Communications Association (WCA) convention in Washington, D.C. The company will launch initial services using equipment from wireless startup, NextNet Wireless Inc. -- a recent McCaw acquisition -- and it eventually hopes to offer a national broadband network (see McCaw Leads NextNet Funding).

Clearwire plans to launch in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Cloud, Minn., this summer, with more markets to follow. The company is promising data download speeds of 1.5 Mbit/s and easy setup for potential customers.

Which all sounds promising, but many companies -- both large and small -- have tried and failed to get similar services off the ground, as McCaw himself seems to acknowledge.

"We're very modestly going forward, respectful of the littered landscape of bankrupt companies in telecom," Reuters quotes McCaw as saying at his WCA keynote.

Indeed, the latest company to be hoist by its own antenna was Cometa Networks, a startup funded by some of the biggest names in IT, which had wanted to carpet the U.S. with wireless LAN hotspots, but couldn't get the funding to launch more than a couple of hundred sites and closed down last month (see Cometa Closes).

Ricochet Networks Inc. was one of the wireless industry's most spectular flameouts of recent years. Like Clearwire, the well regarded firm tried to launch a national wireless broadband network using its own metro-area kit. And failed. Twice (see Ricochet: Dead Again?). Although -- if the Ricochet Website is correct -- it looks as if the venture may bounce back from the dead a third time with a new owner.

There is, however, one new factor in Clearwire's favor with its attempt to go where others have stumbled. And that's the wireless technology du jour -- WiMax.

WiMax is the marketing term for 802.16a wireless metropolitan-area network technology, which is intended to provide high-speed fixed wireless services over distances of 30 miles or so.

Like many other startups in the wireless broadband infrastructure market, Clearwire's hardware provider -- NextNet -- is touting its gear as pre-WiMax, and the firm intends to offer fully compliant kit once the specification is ratified sometime in 2004 or early 2005. And while startups making a flap about wireless broadband technology is nothing new, WiMax also has the backing of big guns like Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC).

Which all makes WiMax the biggest wave that fixed wireless broadband services has seen in several years. And McCaw -- along with many others -- is ready to ride it.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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