Wireless pioneer reflects on roots, looks to WiMax

Craig McCaw discusses Cingular's acquisition of AT&T Wireless and looks toward his new WiMax venture.

SAN FRANCISCO--Cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw on Wednesday discussed Cingular Wireless' acquisition of AT&T's wireless division, harking back to the 1994 sale of his company to Ma Bell.

McCaw sold his cellular company to AT&T in 1994, setting the groundwork for Ma Bell's cell phone business.

"When we sold it to AT&T, I said the company was like my child and it was growing up to go to reform school," he said to chuckles in the audience at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2004 trade show here. Eventually, "you have to step out of the way."

Now that the technology he pioneered has matured and become global, McCaw is trying something new. He's going after wireless broadband.


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McCaw has created a wireless broadband company called Clearwire, and is currently looking toward developing countries as a potential test bed before completely deploying the technology in the United States. Clearwire currently offers a wireless broadband service in Jacksonville, Fla., but countries abroad could present another opportunity for wireless broadband, he said.

"What we envisioned in WiMax--it fits as an extension of Wi-Fi in places where you can't have control of your environment," McCaw said.

His comments came two days after Clearwire struck a deal with Intel to develop and install broadband Internet services based on WiMax technology.

WiMax is similar to Wi-Fi in that it offers two-way broadband Internet access. The difference is that WiMax technology promises to broadcast broadband at a radius of several miles.

Companies are trying to get standards set for the technology in hopes of eventually driving down equipment costs, but WiMax networks will not be ready until 2006, analysts have said.

McCaw said his company is selling equipment in 20 countries around the world, "and they're not the wealthy places," such as the Ivory Coast and Bangladesh.

The company also is targeting less-served communities, including some sparse communities in Northern Canada.

Eventually, Clearwire wants to expand across the United States. The company launched its Jacksonville service in August of this year and plans to bring its wireless broadband service to 20 cities across the United States and Mexico by the end of 2005.

The service is not technically WiMax, because it doesn't use the equipment standards for the technology. Instead, it's a proprietary network through which customers can access the Internet by plugging a modem into an electrical outlet and hooking into an Ethernet cable.

Clearwire eventually will adopt WiMax, but it doesn't plan to deploy it until the end of 2006.

McCaw hasn't abandoned his wireless phone roots. He is taking a close look at Net phone calls, or voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) over his broadband wireless networks.

"There's no question we plan to offer VoIP in some iterations," he said.

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