Google and Comcast, sitting in a tree…

by on July 24, 2008 · 2 comments

Tom Hazlett’s latest column in the FT tries to make us all pay more attention to the Clearwire deal. Even those of us here at the TLF have been remiss in following the venture. As Tom points out, the fact that open-spectrum and net-neutrality stalwarts such as Google and Intel are in bed with Comcast and Sprint tells us a lot. He writes:

Municipal Wi-Fi Adieu. When local government networks were the rage, circa 2003, their loudest corporate backer was Google. Broadband for all via “free” unlicensed spectrum, smart radios and just a gentle nudge from City Hall. Politicians from Philadephia to Portland drank the Kool-Aid. But Google just paid $500m to jump to the Clearwire ship. The change in strategy speaks volumes: municipal wi-fi is considered small opportunity for Google and no threat to Clearwire.

Fleeing the “Spectrum Commons”. Five years ago, Intel was pressuring US regulators for more unlicensed bands. It won – the Federal Communications Commission dumped hundreds of MHz into the market. The bump was little noticed – short-range apps continued to work, but not much else developed. Meanwhile, wireless phone networks – providing wide area, mobile service – were booming. But regulators held off new allocations for a decade, starving the sector just when it was upgrading to high-speed data networks.

New Clearwire boasts WiMAX, “wi-fi on steroids”, as its technological innovation, but note: this WiMAX runs on licensed frequencies. That is an economic choice, not a technical one. Only with the control afforded by exclusivity will these companies invest in the networks that, they hope, will make consumers sing. The “spectrum commons”? Been there, done that. This wireless broadband innovation aims to do what no one has done in unlicensed – and betting $14bn on it.

Net Neutrality Not. Clearwire consortium members are not passive investors. Buying in, they become network friends with benefits. The cable ops will retail service. McCaw’s NextNet is the lead gear maker. Motorola supplies handsets. Intel’s chips are plugged in. And Google’s search engine gets its own button on the phones, a cute efficiency copied from the wildly popular DoCoMo network in Japan. If the NTT model, where the carrier extracts payment from mobile apps for a preferred spot on the wireless web, is “open” – then “open” all capitalists must be. Richly, NTT is a member in good standing in Google’s Open Handset Alliance.

Now, the question my friends on the other side will rightly ask is, where’s the beef? Here it is. Any ideas how fast it will grow?

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