Wireless to the Rescue? 1

Where I see the broadband glass as half empty, Steve Stroh sees it as half full. He’s convinced license-exempt wireless networks will route around whatever damage the telcos and cablecos impose by blocking and metering applications.

Steve is right that wireless, in particular unlicensed wireless, is the last, best, hope for a truly competitive broadband Internet. And he’s right that technology is no longer the critical gating factor.

I’m still worried, though, because I don’t see anyone in a position to deploy unlicensed wireless broadband at a large enough scale to dent the incumbents’ efforts to bend the Net to their will.

Who is going to deploy unlicensed wireless broadband in a big way?

The independent WISPs concentrate, as they should, on the low-hanging fruit of smaller markets and business services. Earthlink will make a valiant effort, but it doesn’t have the resources to go toe-to-toe with the incumbents across the country. Clearwire is blocking VOIP ports itself. Sprint/Nextel, which has a huge block of 2.5 GHz spectrum, is partnering with cable operators to be their wireless play. As of Monday, AT&T and MCI are gone. That leaves AOL, running away from the access business as fast as a dysfunctional conglomerate can, and some intriguing yet orthoganal players (Google, Current Technologies, Level 3). Intel is throwing money into the wireless broadband space (at least, the WiMax part of it) with reckless abandon, but it has no interest in becoming a service provider.

I hope Steve is right. I fear that he’s right about the technology but wrong about the market.