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Why Cable And WiMax Shouldn't Mix

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WiMax is going nowhere fast but that is not stopping a consortium of cable and tech companies from considering a plan to invest $3 billion more into a proposed bailout-through-merger of Sprint Nextel’s WiMax business (known as Xohm) and Craig McCaw’s Clearwire. The consortium that is reportedly being put together would include Comcast ($1 billion), Intel ($1 billion), Time Warner Cable ($500 million), Bright House Networks and Google ($500 million).

This latest plan comes after Sprint Nextel’s disastrous $30 billion write-down last quarter of its Nextel acquisition, and is an attempt to salvage something out of that train wreck. It also comes after Intel recently balked at putting up $2 billion itself. Intel wants to sell WiMax chips and has already sunk $600 million into Clearwire. But even Intel has its limits.

wimax-logo.jpgWiMax is a promising technology and these are early days. But even an extra $3 billion won’t be enough. Building out a nationwide WiMax network could cost as much as $8 billion to $12 billion. And there could be more technical hiccups. (An Australian WiMax provider is already giving up).

Clearwire, which is already operating its broadband wireless service in parts of the country, lost $727 million last year, on revenues of $151 million. So far, it has raised at least $2.75 billions dollars through private investors ($900 million in 2006), an IPO ($600 million), and a $1.25 billion line of credit. As for Xohm, it has only soft launched with employees in three cities. Nevertheless, last year it cost Sprint Nextel $577 million in capital expenditures and operating expenses.

I can see why Google might throw its hat into the ring here—anything to promote more broadband wireless networks. But Comcast and Time Warner Cable should stay away. The logic behind the investment seems to be that the cable companies could use the WiMax network to counter the moves by Verizon and AT&T into their turf (with TV service over phone lines). It is being suggested that the cable companies would be able to launch their own white-label mobile phone and high-speed Internet services over WiMax , or use it to distribute their TV content to computers and new digital devices.

Here’s where that logic breaks down:

1. WiMax is more an alternative to fixed broadband Internet access than it is to mobile phone service. Verizon and AT&T have a huge head start and customer lock-in when it comes to cell phone service. WiMax mobile phones would take decades to chip away at that even if they do offer faster data speeds. Today, Clearwire is only offering at-home phone service, not mobile. As for broadband Internet and home phone services, Comcast and Time Warner already compete effectively against the phone companies today with their alternative services over cable.

2. It no longer makes sense to try to own all the pipes because pipes are becoming a commodity. Yet pipes are an expensive commodity. If the idea is to create a new way to stream TV and movies to people, the cable companies no longer have to build out the infrastructure themselves to do that. It would be much cheaper to let the WiMax business prove itself to be viable on its own and cut deals for distribution.

(Photo via Erik Charlton).

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