Subscribers have a short fuse when it comes to coverage gaps. Clearwire is furiously building out its network, but can it move fast enough?
Mike Doyle, a Chicago-area blogger and public relations consultant, has been with Clearwire since the first week it rolled out WiMAX last fall. The service keeps him connected while he’s running around, writing about life in the Windy City, and Doyle is glad it’s available.
There’s just one problem: It’s been getting progressively slower.
“At first it was screaming fast,” Doyle says. His WiMAX service boasted 6 Mbps when he first signed on, and then dropped to a still-brisk 4 Mbps. Doyle wasn’t worried at first, but the service continued to degrade. “By the middle of January, it had gotten so slow I’d connect and it’d be slower than DSL, 200-300K,” Doyle says. A technician who visited his apartment told him the service would improve as Clearwire deployed more equipment.
Soon after his mobile broadband service slowed to a snail’s pace, Doyle moved to another part of downtown Chicago where Clearwire’s service has been “better, but not great.” Doyle’s experience has left him questioning the levels of service Clearwire boasts in its advertisements.
“I know it takes months to get towers, I know that. What gets me is that there are still ads all over the place making promises about Clear in specific areas of Chicago that I don’t see [those speeds in],” Doyle says.
Doyle’s not the only one complaining about Clearwire’s coverage. Aside from a website dedicated to cataloguing consumer complaints about the service, there has been a spate of less-than-favorable reviews, including one from The New York Times, which called Clearwire’s 4G signal “spottier than a kennel of Dalmatians.”
Clearwire is coping with a dilemma that’s not uncommon for operators in the middle of a next-generation network deployment. It can’t flip a switch in the middle of the night and light up a nationwide 4G network. Clearwire has to strike a balance between deploying in as many new markets as possible while fixing gaps in coverage in its existing markets – gaps that fuel customer discontent and sour reviews from the tech press.
COVERAGE MAPS KEY FOR CLEARWIRE
“We’re not perfect, and we will admit that,” says John Saw, Clearwire’s chief technology officer. “This is a very young network. I’ve built networks all my life and Rome is not built in one day.”
Clearwire is going after the problem by being upfront about its coverage. It boasts some of the most detailed coverage maps in the industry. Clearwire’s website offers an address-by-address coverage map that includes the location of cell towers and the level of speeds potential subscribers can expect.
Clearwire also offers users of its new Rover prepaid brand two free days of service to ensure they’re happy with the company’s network performance. Saw says that the company tries to address subscriber complaints, and even will go so far as to add extra equipment if there’s enough demand for service.
“We’re building this at a rate that’s never been done before,” Saw says. “Some of the coverage gaps they perceive are going to get fewer over time as we add more cell sites. We’re extremely bullish about all the stuff that’s happening and about what we’re going to do in the near future.”
Clearwire’s optimism about the capabilities of its network has contributed to a blitz of marketing hype that has set consumer expectations high for the kind of service it can deliver. Clear.com promises that Clearwire’s WiMAX “blistering” fast service will “blow away your old Internet connection.” Sprint, which resells Clearwire’s service under its own brand, uses similar language in its marketing, calling its 4G service “blazing fast.”
SETTING, MEETING EXPECTATIONS
Today’s subscribers have become accustomed to the speed and reliability of carriers’ legacy networks, and operators need to be aware that their expectations for 4G deployments are high, says Dan Warren, director of technology for the GSM Association (GSMA).
When they’re told a network can deliver 3-6 Mbps on the downlink, as Clearwire says its 4G network can, they expect it to perform and have little patience for error.
“Once you’ve gotten to a point in some of the developed markets where you have 100 percent coverage and 100 percent saturation, you have a different set of expectations,” Warren says. “You have to have it reliable and available from day one. The expectation with LTE is that you’re going to see people expect to see things work straight out of the box, with no problems and great service.”
Verizon Wireless, which has built its brand on the breadth and reliability of its network, is keenly aware of this as it moves to launch commercial LTE services over the coming months.
“Do you build a network that meets customer expectations or just to say you have a 4G network, but it’s Swiss cheese? That’s a decision that as an engineer and a business you make. It has nothing to do with deploying new technology. It has to do with strategy,” says Tony Melone, Verizon Wireless’ chief technology officer. “We believe that we do need to give customers a solid, consistent experience with that network right out of the gate.”
Verizon is currently conducting field trials of its LTE network and plans to launch commercial services to 100 million people in up to 30 markets by the end of the year. Tests of Verizon’s trial network boast average downlink speeds of 5-12 Mbps and Melone says the network has demonstrated bursts of up to 60 Mbps in trials.
THE SPECTRUM (DIS)ADVANTAGE
Clearwire is in a very different situation than Verizon and AT&T as it moves to deploy its 4G network. Aside from the fact that it’s using a different technology standard, it’s using higher frequency spectrum than its competitors and is doing more greenfield deployments. These three factors have complicated Clearwire’s near-term network deployments, though its considerable spectrum assets have it well-positioned in the long term, say analysts.
Clearwire likes to highlight its considerable spectrum holdings, which amount to more than 100 MHz in the 2.5 GHz band in most metropolitan markets. These spectrum holdings give Clearwire an envious advantage when it comes to capacity, but the higher frequency presents some network architecture challenges.
Clearwire’s high-frequency spectrum doesn’t have the same propagation characteristics as AT&T and Verizon’s 700 MHz spectrum, which is called “beachfront” spectrum because of its ability to send signals long distances and through obstacles like walls.
Signals sent on Clearwire’s highfrequency airwaves have a harder time penetrating buildings and don’t travel as far as signals sent over lower frequency bands, forcing Clearwire to deploy more equipment to cover the same area.
Phil Solis, research director of mobile networks at ABI Research, says the lower propagation characteristics of Clearwire’s spectrum are the main reason it’s suffering from coverage gaps.
“Because the frequency is higher, the range is lower,” Solis says. “Until they get additional sites put up, that’s where they have holes in coverage.”
Until Clearwire finishes patching its network with new towers and cells, its customers will have a much different experience from the 3G networks they’re accustomed to, according to Ken Rehbehn, a 4G mobile wireless infrastructure analyst with Yankee Group.
“It’s a great solution for folks that are located in the sweet spots of a coverage map, but it will not deliver ubiquitous coverage across an entire region the way cell phone users are used to receiving coverage,” Rehbehn says.
Instead of the sluggish but consistent 3G mobile broadband speeds subscribers have become accustomed to, Clearwire’s network performance can vary considerably depending on a user’s location, leaving some customers elated and others nonplussed. Just two of Clearwire’s mobile broadband devices roam on Sprint’s 3G network, so customers using Clearwire’s five other dongles and personal hot spots lose all connectivity when they’re outside of Clearwire’s coverage area.
Still, Rehbehn maintains that Clearwire is in a good position for long-term success once its network deployment is complete. “They have a stunning amount of capacity at that frequency range. For customers who are in the sweet spot of coverage, the spectrum resources that Clearwire can bring to bear should deliver fantastic service,” he says.
Clearwire says its WiMAX network has average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps with bursts over 10 Mbps. The company is testing LTE technology using 40 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band that is expected to produce download speeds between 10-20 Mbps, Saw says.
AT&T declined to be interviewed for this article and has not released projected download speeds for its LTE network, which will begin commercial launches next year. MetroPCS’ 4G network is expected to be considerably slower than its competitor’s networks because of its limited spectrum assets.
Clearwire is striking a delicate balance. As it launches its network, it’s also launching its brand for wireless connectivity. It wants consumers to think of Clearwire first when considering mobile broadband service, but Clearwire’s network still doesn’t have the ubiquitous, nationwide coverage that some subscribers have come to expect.
This discrepancy has dogged Clearwire’s churn rate, which stubbornly hovers around 3 percent. As Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert put it in the company’s second-quarter earnings call, “churn is primarily driven by the customer’s perception of their network experience, and our network is, of course, still under construction.”
Back in Chicago, Doyle says he doesn’t have any near-term plans to ditch Clearwire’s service. He recommends the service to friends, but cautions them that it’s not usually fast enough to do some of the things they can do with a wired connection, like watching streaming video. Still, he’s keeping a close eye on the competition as Verizon and AT&T prepare to launch their LTE networks. If they offer better service when they launch 4G, Doyle will switch in a heartbeat.