First-to-market advantage for WiMAX falls flat

A first-to-market advantage for WiMAX over LTE was supposed to help differentiate Sprint Nextel Corp and Clearwire Corp. from its competitors. But if you live in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, not so much. Los Angeles and the surrounding area finally got its first official look at WiMAX earlier this week. San Francisco is still waiting. Although the companies launched their first WiMAX market almost two years ago in Portland, Ore., scale is what matters most. A so-called fourth generation network without service in San Francisco or Los Angeles (until just this past Monday) is no network I want to pay for.

Sure, I’ve lived my entire life in California so I’m admittedly biased, but there are plenty of good business reasons to not ignore The Golden State and leave it behind or on the back burner. When it’s all said and done, WiMAX will have launched in Los Angeles exactly six days before LTE. So much for a first-to-market advantage or really any head start at all. Moreover, barring any unforeseen last-minute surprise from Sprint or Clearwire, Verizon Wireless will have completely beaten its WiMAX-backing counterparts to the 4G party with an LTE signal in San Francisco. If you take each of these companies at their word, Verizon’s LTE network will cover 10 million more potential customers than Sprint as of this coming Sunday. In other words, Verizon will have leapfrogged Clearwire and Sprint’s early 4G status in one fell swoop. The eight cities in California that rank in the top 50 U.S. cities based on population — Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, Long Beach and Oakland — comprise almost 9 million people alone. Until last Monday, WiMAX was only live in one of those cities: Sacramento. Los Angeles is a huge step forward for Clearwire and Sprint but it’s unclear why the companies didn’t focus where the most people live first and fill in the rest later. Verizon Wireless appears to be doing the opposite, at least in California. Six of those cities will have LTE service as of this Sunday. Guess which city isn’t on the list of Verizon’s initial launch markets — Sacramento. It’s OK, nothing really gets done there anyway.

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