XOHM President Says Shame on Us for Delays, Lays Smack Down on LTE

Barry WestA lot of people expected CTIA 2008 to be a coming-out party of sorts for Mobile WiMax. Not so much. Sure, news of the CloudBook Max was interesting. But at the big unveiling of the Nokia N810 WiMax Edition I attended the demo was run over Wi-Fi. Then it became official that the already limited commercial launch of Sprint’s XOHM network in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington D.C. would be pushed back from April to “later in the year.” And there continues to be rumors that XOHM will need a huge cash infusion by the cable providers (or someone else) just to get off the ground. If you believed all of the skeptics, you might just think that Mobile WiMax was doomed to be wireless vaporware. Could XOHM be DOA? We caught up with Barry West, XOHM president and chief technology office, to get his perspective on the biggest obstacles facing the company, as well as on LTE, the competing 4G technology that both AT&T and Verizon Wireless will be rolling out using their precious 700 MHz spectrum auction winnings. LAPTOP: Were you disappointed that things didn’t go better for XOHM at CTIA? Barry West: Firstly, that wasn’t an active network. As far as WiMax being demoed at the show, our WiMax lounge was extremely successful and we did have some devices up and running. When you don’t have a commercial network, you have no idea who is transmitting in that area. It is always difficult to set up demos at a show like CTIA. The difference in an active network is you have control of it day by day and when you have interference you can fix it. I was hoping at one time to have a real network in Vegas, but there wasn’t enough time to do that. L: The official word is that XOHM has been delayed until “later in the year.” Can you be more specific? BW: We don’t have an updated ETA. The issue we are facing is bringing up the right number of sites. Most of our sites are prepped, but what we don’t have is the microwave backhauling and they have to go through separate zoning. Shame on us, but we didn’t get to it quickly enough and now we are more comfortable with that. Every day more sites come up, but until we have the right cluster we are not going to launch. It is a little undetermined at this point but it will be up and running later this year. L: Another reason sighted for the delay has been that the service already running in Washington and Chicago wasn’t performing up to snuff. Is that true? BW: That is not accurate. We have seen 7Mbps in the downlink in Chicago. I don’t know where that is coming from. We are very pleased with both the networks in Chicago and in the Baltimore/Washington area. L: LTE is gaining considerable momentum in the industry. What are your thoughts on that emerging technology? BW: The standards for Mobile WiMax were completed in 2005 and here we are in 2008 rolling out the technology. LTE is still in the standards space so if you take the same timeline and add three years to theirs, you are talking 2011 before you start to see commercial systems. By that time WiMax will have moved on several revolutions and will be performing even better. L: Do you feel like there is room for both technologies? BW: It is kind of a shame because there is nothing that is LTE that doesn’t exist in WiMax, so why waste the development resources of our industry redeveloping what we have? The right thing to do would be to get behind WiMax and get it over with. L: Did you have discussions with other carriers to get behind Mobile WiMax? BW: We have had discussions with about every major carrier in the country. There is no logic behind LTE, besides the word itself – Long Term Evolution. It implies that this is a complete overlay network. It is exactly as when we went from GSM to wideband CDMA. It sounds good to have a name like Long Term Evolution. It’s not a long term evolution. It’s a complete overlay standard. I just don’t know what is so magical about LTE. L: Since AT&T and Verizon will be using the 700MHz spectrum to build out their LTE networks, wouldn’t that give them an advantage in terms of range and indoor performance versus XOHM’s 2.5-GHz? BW: There are two factors about it. Firstly, you need a lot less sites to build a 700MHz network. But then the fact that you have only 20MHz (of capacity), as opposed to our 90MHz. As the demand comes up, 700 is beach front property, no doubt about that. But when the tide of demand comes in you want to be on the higher side of 2.5-GHz where you have so much more capacity. Social networking with visual content, streaming, and real-time video are going to chew up capacity and you don’t have enough spectrum at 700 to grow like we do at 2.5. As you cell split at 700 the very thing that made it great in the beginning, which is the propagation, now becomes an issue because it creates more interference. The propagation from one site starts to interfere with another site simply because radio waves at 700 travel so well. Each piece of spectrum is valuable in its own right. L: So do you think XOHM is more future proof? BW: Yes. Here is the funny thing, the more successful [AT&T and Verizon] become at 700 the more successful we will be at 2.5. When they hit their capacity walls we will just keep on going. More power to them. Create the demand and we’ll be the beneficiaries. L: Did you consider the comments by Buzz Broadband’s CEO about WiMax being a “miserable failure” and “mired in opportunistic hype” a black eye for the technology? BW: Not really. Compared with some of the noise that’s generated by some of our competitors, that was quite small. It does show there’s no substitute for a good, well-designed network, and those guys were using underpowered base stations because they were cheap and didn’t seem to have the kind of expertise to design a network for what they were trying to put out as their service. That’s going to happen all the time. The fact is, we have the stuff, it’s not like I’m waiting on it to come. We have it, we’ve tested the hell out of it. We’re very pleased with the performance, the speed of the innovation of the ecosystem is impressive to say the least. I’ve been in the industry for a long time, I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this. It used to be that you were always extremely nervous on your first launch because you’re afraid of having to pull back devices. From the start, we’ll have the ability to re-program the devices over the air, so we’ll never have to go into a recall situation. It’s a world of difference between what these guys were trying to do in a small company in Australia and what we’re doing here. L: Has your own outlook for XOHM shifted at all from six months ago versus today? BW: I am more confident than I was six months ago simply because of the amount we’ve done in those six months. We’ve taken Motorola and Samsung from pre-commercial software to commercial software. We’ve taken our back office billing from pre-commercial to commercial. All the pieces of the ecosystem are coming together. We’ve started to test some of our sales and marketing techniques, so it’s always reassuring when you’ve got those major milestones basically behind you. And now you’re into the build-out, which I should never underestimate, me of all people. At least it’s a known reproduceable process.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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