The Valley will soon become the nation's first and only test site for the fastest wireless technology entering the marketplace, a leap in cellphone and Internet service that could drive down prices for consumers.
Think seamless movie streaming on mobile devices, multiple-player gaming on smartphones and crystal-clear videoconferencing.
Clearwire, the wireless Internet-service provider behind the technology, will start the tests this fall and hopes to offer the service throughout the Valley next year. For months, the company has been seeking permits from cities to put up poles to transmit its microwave signal.
The tests are part of an intense competition in Arizona and elsewhere between Clearwire and its competitors to provide fourth-generation, long-term-evolution, or 4G LTE, technology. The emerging wireless technology is expected to provide download and upload speeds equal to cable Internet and exponentially faster than the third-generation, or 3G, technology used by cellphone-service providers now.
As with any new product that rivals its competition, consumer prices should come down, experts say.
"This could change a lot of things for people," said Retha Hill, director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. Consumers may scrap their cable, phone and Internet service and switch to wireless if the costs are significantly lower, she said.
"When you're paying $135 to $156 a month for bundled cable, phone and Internet service and could switch for $30 or $50 - where can I sign up?" Hill said.
Arizona currently doesn't have access to 4G, which exists under two competing technology standards: LTE and WiMax. Clearwire launched the first 4G service in the United States last year using the WiMax standard, and its service is now in 20 states.
However, every major U.S. cellphone carrier is gearing up to offer 4G. Most will be using LTE, which is faster than WiMax.
Officials from Clearwire and several cellphone companies would not disclose fees for their planned 4G LTE services, but some conceded that the competition and large-scale usage could bring down prices.
Clearwire, based in Kirkland, Wash., is the eighth-largest data provider in the nation. It markets wireless Internet outside of Arizona under its own brand, Clear, and through wholesale relationships with cellphone and cable-TV companies. Sprint, which is part owner of Clearwire, and Comcast deliver the WiMax wireless Internet service in a partnership with Clearwire.
Clearwire spokeswoman Debra Havins said the company will not reveal details about its tests or which cellphone carriers might offer the service but confirmed that the Valley is the only location where the company is trying out its new wireless network.
The ability of any carrier to wirelessly transmit e-mail, photos, video, music and TV shows to smartphones and laptops depends on the speed and reliability of its network. Speed is usually expressed as Mbps, megabits per second. Most 3G networks deliver data at 1 to 2 Mbps. The WiMax technology available in other states delivers speeds up to 12 Mbps. Clearwire's LTE network will be testing speeds of 20 to 70 Mbps, which will be even faster than competitors' planned LTE networks, Havins said.
In practical applications, it takes about two minutes to download a five-minute video on a 3G network; existing 4G networks can do it in less than a minute. Clearwire's speeds promise to do it in seconds or split seconds.
Havins said Clearwire is able to offer data transmission at such high speeds because the amount of broadcast spectrum it owns is "unmatched."
Every broadcast-television station, radio station and cellphone provider operates on its own particular slice of the airwaves, or broadcast spectrum. The larger a share of the spectrum one company owns, the more data it can transmit.
Jonathan Wells, a wireless-technology expert based in Pleasanton, Calif., said that LTE will soon be the dominant network technology and that Clearwire is building a nationwide presence. The Phoenix test, he said, "is an experiment, but a very significant one, because of what we call the iPhone effect: People are downloading massive amounts of data on their handheld devices, and many are using it as their primary connection to the Internet."
The speeds promised by Clearwire are "remarkable," Wells said, and could pave the way for high-speed multiplayer gaming and two-way videoconferencing for businesses.
Chris Conrey, vice president of Integrum, a Chandler software company that develops Web and mobile applications, said he is not convinced Clearwire can deliver the promised speeds.
"4G is going to be great, but Clearwire's numbers sound too good to be true," he said.
AT&T is getting ready to launch its 4G LTE system next year, spokesman Erika Ulring said. AT&T also is embarking on an aggressive plan to build more wireless-transmission poles to improve coverage, she said.
Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier, will roll out its LTE service before the end of this year in 25 to 30 market areas, spokeswoman Jenny Weaver said. She would not say if cities in Arizona are among them. By 2013, Verizon will have nationwide LTE coverage, Weaver said.
For months, Clearwire has been secretive about its Arizona plans, declining to answer questions about the spate of permit applications for wireless towers in several Valley cities. Planning and zoning offices in Chandler, Gilbert, Scottsdale, Tempe and Peoria have been getting an influx of Clearwire requests, municipal officials said. Phoenix is seeing significant increases in requests for cell-tower permits but could not immediately provide information about which providers were applicants.
City officials said they were not told by Clearwire representatives what the company was planning for the area.
"We knew they were bulking up to do something here," said Steven Philbrick, a technology official for Chandler.
by Edythe Jensen The Arizona Republic Sept. 4, 2010 12:00 AM
Valley chosen to test fast wireless network