interview


Barry West, chief of Xohm

Barry West, chief of Xohm

Barry West, chief of Xohm

Barry West, chief of Xohm

Six months later than originally planned, this month sees the Sprint-backed Xohm mobile WiMAX service making its market debut. Barry West is the man in charge and he has to make good on the promises of Sprint as well as the wider WiMAX community.

Sprint Nextel recently launched its Xohm-branded mobile WiMAX service in the Eastern Seaboard city of Baltimore. The man in charge is Barry West, president of the Xohm business unit and formerly Sprint Nextel’s CTO. And when the somewhat complicated creation of the ‘New Clearwire’ is finally achieved, West will assume control of that business as its president.

Speaking to telecoms.com’s sister publication MCI, last month, West named September 29th as the go-live date for the Xohm service, allowing the firm to meet its revised pledge of a September launch with only hours to spare. The debut of the service was originally scheduled for April of this year, with Sprint giving inadequate backhaul as the reason for the delay. But the financial difficulties of its partner Clearwire, and the lagging development of the embedded devices central to the business model were widely perceived to have added to the drag on the launch.

West is an industry veteran who spent 35 years at UK incumbent BT, overseeing the deployment of the Cellnet GSM network (now Telefonica-owned O2). In mid-September 2008 he’s in chipper mood, talking a big game for his new WiMAX network and offering characteristically measured assessments of the prospects for LTE.

West concedes that the September launch is effectively a test. With 166 sites live in Baltimore, Xohm has coverage enough to offer service to 75 per cent of the city’s 1.6m inhabitants. There are no plans to artificially restrict sign-ups-“we will take as many subscribers as want service within the coverage area,” says West-but the launch is being contained because “you always get one or two things that you don’t expect, and you have to make tweaks.”

Just how many subscribers will want service in the initial stages remains to be seen. By West’s own admission, the firm has done “very little” spadework on market awareness, largely because it wants the freedom to iron out any wrinkles that may reflect badly on the launch. In part, though, a nationwide carrier like Sprint can’t make a high impact debut in a city of just 1.6 million people.

The firm is waiting for final approval of the deal that will create the New Clearwire-in which Sprint’s fellow investors (collectively holding 49 per cent) will include Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks-before unveiling “the grander launch plans” at which West hints.

“It’s my expectation that Xohm will launch in Baltimore and then Clearwire will launch in the other markets that we and they have been working on. But we’re not yet ready to make announcements on when that will be,” he says.

Under the Xohm banner, a brand and operation that will be absorbed by the new Clearwire, all being well, Sprint is currently working on five other cities. It has 226 sites live in the Washington DC area, 558 in Chacago, 119 in Dallas/Fort Worth, 119 in Boston and 52 sites in Philadelphia. West says he’s on track to have 2,000 sites deployed by the end of 2008.

Embedded devices are central to the Xohm business model, but none are scheduled for availability at the Baltimore launch. Instead, West says, an aircard from Samsung, a USB device from ZTE and a modem from Zyxel comprise the firm’s lead trident. But in mid-September, West reveals, there are still concerns over the last of these three. “We have one or two issues with the Zyxel modem. We haven’t completed all the testing and there’s a little question mark above it, but I’m sure it will be ready.

“On October 8th we will be announcing a number of embedded devices, some which will be available right away and some that will come later.”

There will be no dual mode cellular/WiMAX devices available at this stage, West says, but one is in the pipeline. “The initial devices are standalone WiMAX but Sprint is working on a WiMAX/1Xev-do air card which we’re hoping to launch later this year. That will be Sprint branded, probably. The other devices will be Xohm branded,” he says.

The aircard and USB devices will be priced at around $50, he says, with a ‘day-pass’ for usage costing $10. West predicts minimal subsidies on devices, although there will be promotional discounts available in the early stages of the service. “We think these will make great holiday gifts because, unlike cellphones, they don’t have to be sold with a subscription,” he says.

The wireless world will be watching with interest to see whether or not West’s predictions of success are borne out. Such is the profile of the Xohm/Clearwire deployment that it carries on its shoulders, to a degree at least, a burden of proof for the entire mobile WiMAX sector. So how does West feel about this?

“Part of what we’ve done is generated a worldwide ecosystem. Our choice of partners was deliberate. We got a European manufacturer, a Far Eastern manufacturer and an American manufacturer as our radio access partners. And they happen to be the number one, two and three device vendors in the world. We’ve met with over 130 operators worldwide and the latest statistic I can give is that more than 50 per cent of the world’s population is covered with WiMAX licences,” he says.

Licence coverage and actual coverage are two very different things, of course, and the LTE community would doubtless respond by pointing out that it has the implicit backing of a group of operators that provide service to more than 80 per cent of the world’s mobile users. But West is undaunted.

The Xohm offering might be a new business model for a cellular carrier-and WiMAX a new technology. But West believes it will work, citing the Nextel push to talk service as a precedent. “I look back at Nextel, where we built a great business-a $35bn business-out of what people thought was a quirky, niche push to talk service. I think the same thing will happen with WiMAX, but it will happen much faster, because of the backing we have from companies like Intel on the chipset side.”

The WiMAX chipset ecosystem offers a key advantage over LTE, West says. “We have well over 20 chipset vendors. LTE will probably be dominated by the one or two chipset vendors that dominate in 3G and I don’t see them changing their model. WiMAX is coming from the wifi space, where we have chips in the range of £15. Already we’re seeing WiMAX chips in the $20-25 range.”

He believes the time to market advantage that WiMAX holds over LTE-two to three years in his estimation-will enable a new breed of smaller operators to create a segment for genuine mobile broadband that will leave traditional cellular players with all the running to do. The question is not necessarily which technology is superior, he says, it’s which technology is available.

“The debate is around exactly when LTE will emerge. After all, Ericsson is saying that there’s a lot of mileage left in HSPA. The fact that it’s called 3G Long Term Evolution is indicative, in my view, of a little sleight of hand here,” he says. “This is not an evolution of 3G, this is a completely new 4G technology that requires investment in a new network. Given that the economic times we’re in at the moment are not easy, the big operators are not looking to invest in a new network any time soon. And that creates a huge opportunity for the alternative operators.

“I think the smaller, new guys entering the marketplace are going to drive the WiMAX bandwagon worldwide. Some of the big operators in India will be a major driver, of course, but that’s mainly on a fixed basis. I think you’ll see a lot of new operators coming on line,” he says.

Not that he’s prepared to discount the established carriers, though. “I don’t see the big operators going away or sitting there and letting all this happen,” he says. “They’ve made a lot of money and they’re powerful, global players. They’ll have deep enough pockets that, if the new guys start going well, they’ll be able to either replicate what the new guys are doing or-if the opportunity comes up-they’ll buy them out.”

It is part of Barry West’s remit, of course, to talk up the opportunities for the technology path that his organisation has chosen to follow. And while Nextel might have made a success of push to talk, it didn’t open the floodgates to a global communications sector. He may well have a time to market advantage over proponents of LTE but, if you flip this around, it becomes a fast-approaching deadline by which Sprint, Xohm, Clearwire and mobile WiMAX have to each prove themselves successful before LTE takes its turn in the spotlight.


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