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Investing in thin air, again

Jun 14, 20043 mins
Cellular NetworksMobileNetworking

Author Casey Corr called his 2000 book about Craig McCaw Money from Thin Air in reference to McCaw building up a cell phone network that AT&T bought for $11.5 billion in 1994. McCaw is again trying to make money from thin air and, like the first time, is trying to do so in an area where major players have stumbled.

Starting in the early 1980s, McCaw Cellular Communications became the largest cell phone company by buying up wireless licenses and companies wherever it could. McCaw succeeded in spite of the fact that many observers thought cell phones would never be a major part of the communications picture because of poor service. These observers misunderstood that the advantages of portable communications outweighed the disadvantages of poor-quality voice and spotty coverage, in the minds of most consumers.

McCaw has not been as successful with the major projects he has been involved with since selling out to AT&T. Teledesic, an ambitious plan to use hundreds of low-orbiting satellites to provide Internet, access, seems all but dead, and Internet and voice service provider XO Communications recently went through bankruptcy.

The wraps came off McCaw’s latest venture earlier this month. He has put together a bunch of wireless licenses and companies to form Clearwire. The company offers wireless, last-mile Internet connectivity and phone service. Initially, Clearwire will focus on Tier-2 markets where the local phone companies and cable companies have not gotten around to offering broadband Internet connectivity. It currently offers service in St. Cloud, Minn., and Jacksonville, Fla., but has plans for a much wider rollout over the next year.

Clearwire seems to be using a pre-standard version of WiMax, the marketing name for the IEEE 802.16a wireless metropolitan-area network standard. WiMax is new, but there have been a number of wireless last-mile technologies in the past, including Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS) and Local Multipoint Distribution System (LMDS). A number of phone carriers dumped quite a bit of money on unsuccessful MMDS or LMDS trials a few years ago. The trials were unsuccessful for a number of reasons, including technology glitches, pricing issues and a mismatch between the service offerings and customer wants.

It is an open question whether Clearwire can succeed in the wireless last-mile business, where others have failed so conclusively. McCaw has a leg up on the previous wireless last-mile trials because he has some experience in an ISP where the previous trials were run by phone companies that had little clue in the Internet area. But I expect that much will depend on what the company decides to charge for its services and how much it stays out of the way. The prices I’ve seen in the press coverage range from $40 to $80 per month for basic Internet service. I predict the company is toast if it hits the high end of that range, because there are too few people willing to pay that much. I also would expect the company to fail if it does anything to force customers to use Clearwire’s phone service instead of leaving things open. McCaw has a better chance than about anyone I can think of, but he could still blow it.

Disclaimer: Harvard’s primary investment is in students and payback opportunities go on forever. But the university did not comment on wireless last-mile services.