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Millenicom Customers Lose Unlimited Wireless Data (Again); Sprint Re-Terminates Agreement

muymMillenicom customers have had their ups and downs over the last two weeks coping with e-mail notifications they would lose, keep, and once again lose their unlimited wireless data plan.

Just a day after Millenicom heard that Sprint would allow them to continue selling Unlimited and Bring Your Own Device plans, the wireless carrier best known for its “unlimited for life” offer changed its mind:

We are very sorry to report that Sprint has reversed their decision from yesterday and terminated their agreement with the gateway for our Unlimited and BYOD accounts.

We are not certain how long until the accounts will be closed.

sprintnextelWe will be shipping out Hotspot devices to those clients who had opted for that solution and BMI.net is ready to fulfill orders for those choosing to go with them.

We have attempted to keep you informed every step of the way and avoid any abrupt transition. We apologize that we weren’t able to come through.

Thank you for allowing us to be of service and please accept our sincere wish for your future success.

Dennis Castle
Owner

millenicomIt is not the first time Millenicom has had problems with Sprint, which has proved to be a difficult carrier to deal with with respect to unlimited use plans.

Sprint’s decision is a major blow to rural Americans who lack access to cable or DSL broadband and are forced to consider satellite-delivered Internet access or pay even more for wireless data plans that come with puny usage caps, overlimit fees or speed throttles.

There are a few alternatives, but since these providers resell access to Sprint-owned networks, all are potentially vulnerable to Sprint’s evolving views on resellers:

bmi-logoBlue Mountain Internet (BMI) offers an “unlimited plan” that isn’t along with several usage allowance plans. BMI strongly recommends the use of their Mobile Broadband Optimizer software that compresses web traffic, dramatically improving speeds and reducing consumption:

Monthly Plans

  • $39.99/Month – 1 Gig Data (** up to 3GB compressed) ($25/GB Overlimit Fee)
  • $59.99/Month – 3 Gig Data (** up to 9GB compressed) ($20/GB Overlimit Fee)
  • $79.99/Month – 5 Gig Data (** up to 15GB compressed) ($20/GB Overlimit Fee)
  • $99.99/Month – 10 Gig Data (** Up to 45GB compressed) ($15/GB Overlimit Fee)
  • $79.99/Month – Unlimited (Bring Your Own Device) – BYOD
  • $99.99/Month – Unlimited Data (S Network) ***

evdousaThere is a $100 maximum on overlimit fees, but BMI reserves the right to suspend accounts after running 3-5GB over a plan’s allowance to limit exposure to the penalty rate. The compression software is for Windows only and does not work with MIFI devices or with video/audio streaming. BMI warns its wireless service is not intended for video streaming. Customers are not allowed to host computer applications including continuous streaming video and webcam posts that broadcast more than 24 hours; automatic data feeds; automated continuous streaming machine-to-machine connections; or peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing.

EVDODepotUSA offers two truly unlimited use plans starting at $119 a month. The company is only contracted to offer access to Sprint’s woefully congested 3G network and the Clear 4G WiMAX network that typically does not offer much coverage in rural areas. LTE access is not currently available. There is a six month contract obligation, but the company also offers a 10-day free trial.

Their current plans:

evdo

wireless n wifiWireless ‘n Wifi offers two partly unlimited plans with no contract commitment. The company charges a refundable deposit on devices, but they become yours to keep after two years:

  • Unlimited 4G Sprint/Clear WiMAX with 3G Fallback ($58.99) offers unlimited WiMAX service but has a 5GB cap on Sprint’s 3G network, the network rural customers will encounter the most. Total start-up fee is $194.93 which includes an activation fee, modem deposit (refunded upon modem return or after 24 months of service), the first month of service, and shipping for the wireless device.
  • Unlimited 4G LTE with WiMAX and 3G Fallback ($79.99) offers unlimited Sprint 4G LTE and Sprint/Clear WiMAX service with a 35GB cap on Sprint’s 3G network. Customers can select a dual-band device that supports LTE and 3G service for $246.93 (includes activation fee, modem upcharge fee, first month of service, shipping, and refundable $100 modem deposit). Customers looking for access to LTE, 3G, and WiMAX can choose a tri-band device for $315.93 (includes activation fee, modem upcharge, first month of service, shipping and refundable deposit.) Keep in mind Sprint’s 4G LTE network is still very spotty.
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Sprint’s ‘Clear’ Raises Prices for Its Throttled and Litigated WiMAX Network

Some ex-Clearwire customers were not happy when their speeds were reduced to 250kbps on the company's overcrowded network.

Some Clearwire customers remain unhappy when speeds are throttled to “manage” the network.

Clear (formerly known as Clearwire) has announced a general rate increase of about 10 percent for customers using its legacy 4G WiMAX broadband service.

As a result, most customers will pay about $5 more per month for fixed wireless or “on the go” broadband service.

“We instituted this to remain competitive and manage our costs,” a Sprint representative told Broadcasting & Cable. “Like our competitors, we must respond to customer trends, and provide a good user experience, and as a result we will make adjustments to fees and services from time to time. Our offer is still comparable to other offerings in the marketplace.”

Some customers would argue with Sprint’s definition of a “good user experience,” as complaints continue about heavy-handed throttling of Clear’s service that makes high bandwidth applications painful or impossible to use in the evening.

Stop the Cap! reader Akos contacted us this week to complain Clear still advertises and contracts for “unlimited data and top speeds,” while not exactly being upfront about targeting certain traffic for a prime time speed throttle that effectively keeps customers from streaming video.

“They openly admit their service is being throttled by software at each tower site that activates when it detects streaming video services like Netflix, reducing speed from 1.3Mbps to as little as 20kbps, rendering it unusable,” said Akos.

The speed throttle is usually active from 8pm-1:30am daily, when traffic is anticipated to be highest. Clear speaks about its network management speed throttle in the fine print: its Acceptable Use Policy.

Akos complains Clear’s speed throttle makes it easy to blame the streaming service, not Clear itself, because customers running speed tests will not see throttled speeds.

“It fools people to think the problem is on their end or with the streaming service, so customers don’t complain to Clear,” says Akos.

As a result, people using streaming video services get about 30 seconds of uninterrupted video before the throttle kicks in bringing extensive buffering delays.

Clearwire’s Speed Throttle Subject of Lawsuits

Clear's own 2010 marketing promises unlimited usage with no speed reductions, like those "other" providers.

Clear’s own 2010 marketing promises unlimited usage with no speed reductions, like those “other” providers.

Clearwire’s speed throttle has been a part of life with the wireless service since 2010. Clearwire had significant legal exposure over its choice of network management because the company routinely advertised “unlimited service” with no speed throttles or overlimit fees. At least three lawsuits were filed against the company for its undisclosed throttling practices, eventually condensed into a single class action case that was finally settled last month.

Under the terms of the settlement, Clear admits no wrongdoing, but will clearly disclose it uses “network management” practices — a term that generally means usage caps and/or speed throttles — and will give customers information about the speeds they can expect when the throttle is active. As of today, Clear has not done that. Clear also volunteered to suspend term contracts and waive early termination fees for customers complaining about speed issues.

At least seven law firms handling the case will split a total award fee of $1,887,792.91 and expenses of $62,207.09. Individual representative plaintiffs each receive up to $2,000. Everyone else identified as part of the class action case that returned a claim form prior to Jan. 3, will receive an average of less than $30:

  • a 50% refund of any early termination fee charged after a customer canceled service because of speed throttling;
  • a rebate of $14 for customers signing up for Clearwire before Sept. 1, 2010 and experiencing speed throttling or a rebate of at least $7 for Clearwire customers signing up on or after Sept. 1, 2010;
  • plus varying amounts for each month of service prior to Feb. 27, 2012 during which Clearwire’s records show it throttled a customer’s Internet speed. Customers throttled at 0.25Mbps will receive $5.00 for each month throttled, 0.60 Mbps: $3.00, and 1.0 Mbps: $2.00.

Court documents reveal of the 2,733,406 customers identified in Clearwire’s records as being speed throttled, only 83,840 submitted timely claims as part of the class action case. This represents a claims rate of about 3.1%. Of those, 76,199 were for speed throttling, 2,331 were requests for reimbursement of early termination fees.

The Future of Clear’s WiMAX and Sprint’s 4G

LTE: AT&T's wireless rural broadband solution?

Sprint purchased the assets of Clearwire Corporation in July, rebranded the network “Clear,” and as of the end of August, stopped selling WiMAX devices to customers. Although Clear will still activate existing equipment, potential new customers are being marketed broadband plans on the Sprint network instead.

Former Clear dealers have received word Sprint plans to eventually decommission its acquired WiMAX network as early as 2014, most likely by gradually converting portions of the 2.5GHz spectrum Clear’s WiMAX service now uses in favor of Sprint’s 4G LTE service in urban and high congestion areas. Clearwire itself was in the process of adopting a variant of 4G LTE technology that would gradually replace the outdated WiMAX standard when Sprint acquired the company.

Although Sprint runs its own 3G network, it partnered with Clearwire to provide 4G WiMAX for Sprint customers. In 2011, Sprint announced it would stop selling devices with built-in support for WiMAX and announced it would launch its own 4G LTE network. Sprint will adopt the same version of LTE other North American carriers are using: FD-LTE, or Frequency Division LTE, which requires one transmit channel and one receive channel. But it will also support and continue Clearwire’s upgrade to TD-LTE, or Time Division LTE, a slightly different standard that supports receiving and transmitting signals on a single frequency at slightly different time intervals, providing enhanced spectrum efficiency. At least 5,500 towers should be active with TD-LTE service by the end of this year. End users will care only to the extent their devices support one or both standards.

Sprint’s 4G LTE rollout will depend primarily on higher frequency spectrum that is disadvantageous indoors and over extended distances. Sprint’s competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless primarily depend on lower 700MHz frequencies that penetrate buildings better and can serve a larger coverage area. But a combination of Sprint and Clearwire’s spectrum assets give Sprint the most wireless spectrum of any U.S. carrier, which means potentially faster speeds and more capacity.

  • 1900MHz: Sprint’s primary 4G FD-LTE service is now available in 151 cities on more than 20,000 cell towers;
  • 2500MHz: Now used by Clear’s legacy WiMAX network, will see a transition towards Sprint’s TD-LTE service which will be targeted to urban and high congestion areas from “small cell” sites;
  • 800MHz: The former home of now-shuttered Nextel, Sprint will eventually launch FD-LTE service on this band which will offer better indoor and marginal area reception.

Customers can expect devices that support both FD-LTE and TD-LTE in 2014.

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FreedomPop Set to Introduce Free 500MB of Data a Month on Sprint’s LTE Network

freedompopFreedomPop, which offers 500MB of free wireless data service a month via Clearwire’s WiMAX service on a range of devices, has a better offer for tablet owners coming in the second half of this year.

The FreedomPop Clip is designed to attach to Wi-Fi only tablets and provides wireless Internet connectivity when away from Wi-Fi. Better still, the service will be free for the first 500MB of usage each month and will support Sprint’s up-and-coming 4G LTE network for faster browsing. The add-on hardware only weighs 2.5 ounces and has its own built-in rechargeable battery estimated to last up to six hours.

Tablets enabled with support for mobile data networks have never sold particularly well because of the added cost and expensive two-year contract required to maintain the service. Instead, some customers tether their tablets or enable an add-on Mobile Hotspot feature on their smartphone, which can cost $30 extra per month. The new FreedomPop Clip does not come with a contract or a monthly fee when users keep browsing to under 500MB each month. The forthcoming device will also support up to eight extra connections, in case you want to share.

Those who want more data, and around 30 percent of FreedomPop’s customers reportedly do, they can buy it on-demand without any contract or commitment. If you bug your friends to also buy the device, you can earn additional free browsing. In fact, FreedomPop will try and encourage sharing by including a new “open Wi-Fi” Internet service on a separate SSID. Those connecting through the open feature will likely get a marketing message encouraging them to get their own FreedomPop device, and their usage won’t count against your allowance.

FreedomPop Clip supports Sprint's up and coming LTE 4G network.

FreedomPop Clip supports Sprint’s up and coming LTE 4G network.

Stop the Cap! has FreedomPop’s $99 iPod Touch add-on device, which works exclusively on Clearwire’s network. We’ve used it for about five months and can report the device works well whether you actually have an iPod or not. It is simply a portable hotspot shaped to clip to the back of the 4th generation iPod Touch (it won’t fit ours). But even if it cannot clip on, it still delivers excellent signals up to 12 feet away from the MP3 player.

Its biggest weakness is Clearwire’s hit or miss network. Here in suburban Rochester, N.Y., Clearwire provides service through a nearby cell tower about a mile away. At home, the device works with fair reception indoors, but really needs to be near a window to perform reliably. Outdoors, the device works much better. We found more trouble trying to use the device in a nearby restaurant and while in downtown Rochester because Clearwire reception proved spotty. When it does work, it provides an average of 800kbps-1Mbps downstream speeds, which is superior to most 3G networks, but does not come close to what Verizon’s LTE network can deliver. But then, FreedomPop data comes free.

Just remember to keep usage at 400MB or less every month. As you approach 500MB of usage, FreedomPop will “conveniently” bill you for additional usage it anticipates you will use unless you remember to shut this auto top-up feature off on FreedomPop’s website control panel. You must also use at least 5MB a month to keep the device active, so remember to power it up at least once a month and do some browsing.

The FreedomPop LTE-capable Clip will also reportedly work with 3G service, according to Forbes. This is an important consideration because Sprint’s 4G LTE network is still in its infancy and not yet available in most major metropolitan areas. But if it relies on Sprint’s overwhelmed 3G network, expect much slower performance.

The selling price for the device itself has not yet been announced, but we expect it will be available later this year at $99 or slightly higher.

Thanks to Stop the Cap! reader Jerry for sending this news tip.

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Clearwire: Unlimited Means No More Than 5GB Or We Throw You Off

Clearwire wants a divorce from customers it deems are using the wireless broadband service too much — as in around 5GB per month, despite the fact many of those customers pay for “unlimited” accounts.

Broadband Reports says several ex-customers are now complaining on Twitter about their abrupt, involuntary departure this week as paying customers, despite company promises that advance warnings would be sent if a customer was engaged in “excessive use.”

“One user excessively running heavy bandwidth applications can adversely affect the speeds and service quality for their neighbors,” Clearwire told Broadband Reports. “It is rare that we take this step and when we do it affects an extremely small percentage of our total user base. We typically contact users to notify them of this type of situation first in order to provide an opportunity to make necessary changes.”

Broadband Reports:

How much usage was considered too much? Clearwire won’t get specific, but one of the users tells Broadband Reports Clearwire informed him he’d breached 5 GB three months in a row — which frankly doesn’t sound excessive for a modern wireless network.

Clear began throttling heavy users on unlimited accounts to around 256kbps back in 2010. They’ve never really been specific about what triggers the throttled state for users, given it appears to be calculated on the fly based on local tower congestion — so what triggers throttling may be different in different markets. It’s not entirely clear why throttling these users back to 256 kbps wasn’t substantial enough of a punishment for these “fired” customers.

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Initial Impressions of FreedomPop’s $99 iPod Sleeve – 500MB Clearwire 4G for Free Each Month

We’ve received FreedomPop’s “Freedom Sleeve Rocket for iPod Touch” here at Stop the Cap! HQ and are giving it a run.

Originally slated for release in the late summer, the $99 sleeve finally arrived yesterday afternoon. FreedomPop’s attraction is 500MB a month of free Clearwire WiMAX usage indefinitely. After the upfront cost of the sleeve ($99), customers can snap the case-like sleeve on the back of their 4th Generation iPod and be on their way streaming content, making Skype calls, checking web pages/email, or sharing the connection with up to eight devices (or friends).

It could be a fine alternative for usage-capped wireless customers who want an extra 500MB edge every month, and if you’ve ever lost a cell phone while exercising (I have), this is a little less risky (and you will definitely notice because the iPod you are listening to will go missing with it).

Still, FreedomPop is a start-up and “free” wireless data sounds a little too good to be true (or at least long-lasting should the business model go awry).

Customers can earn additional usage allotments “connecting” with “Freedom Friends” or signing up for third party offers. If you like the service and want more, FreedomPop’s real business model kicks in — selling you additional data allowances that range from $7.25-$20/GB above and beyond your initial 500MB each month.

Clearwire’s hit or miss coverage in upstate New York.

So how does the device work? We’re testing it out this week and will report our results in greater detail sometime next week. But up front, some interesting observations:

  1. The device seems durable enough. It can recharge from a USB port or from the included power adapter. Charging time initially took several hours, but we’re unsure how long it will run just yet;
  2. A web-based control panel offers easy customization of the device, which appears as a Wi-Fi hotspot when the 4G service is enabled. You can reset your password and even manage the power level. The “low” setting proved more than adequate for anyone within 10 feet to connect, and since this was designed to attach to the back of your iPod, signal strength of its Wi-Fi service is no problem;
  3. You better have a 4th generation iPod or else it simply won’t fit. I actually discovered I had a third generation unit, which means no luck snapping the iPod to the back of the sleeve. Apple’s newest iPod Touch won’t fit either. But then I discovered it really didn’t matter. I can slip the sleeve all by itself in a pocket and it will still work fine with my iPod, attached or not. FreedomPop also sells a small portable hotspot device that could work equally well if you don’t need a “snap-on” solution;
  4. Clearwire, which has a dreadful reputation for reception and speed issues here in western New York, actually worked impressively well in early tests. Indoors we managed a medium strength signal from a cell tower located about two miles away. Clearwire’s very high frequency means outdoor reception free of obstacles like walls and doors will perform even better, and it did. We managed at least 1-3Mbps service at all times, which is better than a lot of cell carrier 3G networks locally;
  5. Making and receiving VoIP calls using an earlier generation iPod Touch is a nuisance. We noticed audio dropouts and call dropping, and you need to supply a headset with a microphone to be able to speak to a caller. But who calls anyone anymore? Text messages and Google Talk’s instant message system worked much easier;
  6. You can eat usage just browsing web pages. I was astonished to discover I consumed more than 42MB after less than 30 minutes of reading e-mail and web browsing a half-dozen news site web pages. At that rate, I’d be close to my limit after just 10 days. This surprised me because my Verizon Wireless data plan shows my spouse and I manage around 700MB of combined usage every month, and that includes streaming radio every morning on the ride to work. FreedomPop’s usage meter will need some closer inspection because there are indications it counts 1MB of usage for each hour the device is powered on, regardless of whether you are actively using it or not;
  7. The second thing we did after unboxing was visit FreedomPop’s website and turn off “automatic top up” under Billing Settings. Otherwise after you reach 400MB (not a typo) of usage, FreedomPop will “conveniently” automatically add 1GB of additional usage for $20, billed to your credit card. Set in the off position, your account will simply stop working for the rest of the month once you hit 500MB.

I had low expectations from FreedomPop’s alliance with Clearwire, the WiMAX network Sprint customers love to hate (and then turn off on their phones to conserve battery life). But so far I am cautiously optimistic.

Readers should be careful before jumping in and check FreedomPop’s coverage map first because Clearwire’s network is notoriously limited. For example, here in upstate New York Rochester, Syracuse, Geneva, and Cortland are covered. Buffalo, Albany, and Binghamton are not. In the Big Apple, New York City has coverage, Long Island east of Valley Stream is out of luck.

We’ll post a more detailed review next week.

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Pot to Kettle: AT&T Sounds Alarm That Sprint-Softbank Deal Threatens Competitive Wireless

AT&T says this deal was no problem, but ponders whether Sprint-Clearwire is.

AT&T, the company that tried and failed to buy Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, is sounding the alarm, urging regulators to carefully review any deal between Sprint, Softbank, and Clearwire.

“Softbank’s acquisition of Sprint and the control it gains over Clearwire will give one of Japan’s largest wireless companies control of significantly more U.S. wireless spectrum than any other company,” Brad Burns, an AT&T vice president said in a statement released late Wednesday. “We expect that fact and others will be fully explored in the regulatory review process. This is one more example of a very dynamic and competitive U.S. wireless marketplace, which is an important fact for U.S. regulators to recognize.”

AT&T claims its primary concern is the growing foreign control of America’s wireless carriers. That did not seem to bother AT&T from doing business with Germany-based Deutsche Telekom. Verizon Wireless has not been the recipient of any AT&T complaints either, and it is jointly owned by Verizon Communications and London-based Vodafone Group Plc.

Sprint bankrolled an opposition campaign against AT&T’s 2011 attempt to buy T-Mobile in a $39 billion dollar deal that failed after regulators objected to its impact on marketplace competition.

AT&T’s concerns about spectrum control may be an attempt to lobby the FCC for more leniency in approving future spectrum acquisitions. But industry analysts note that while a combined Sprint-Clearwire network may control more spectrum than others, much of it occupies less-favorable, very high frequencies that have trouble delivering robust service indoors. AT&T maintains a considerable amount of prime spectrum most sought by carriers, some of it yet to be used.

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Emboldened Sprint Seeks Controlling Interest in Clearwire; Will Pay $100 Million for Co-Founder’s Stake

Sprint will have majority ownership in Clearwire, including its lucrative wireless spectrum.

Sprint-Nextel will gain majority control over its beleaguered wireless partner Clearwire with the $100 million acquisition of Craig McCaw’s stake in the wireless company he co-founded.

Sprint already controlled 48 percent of Clearwire, which provides many Sprint customers with 4G WiMAX service, but today’s purchase will give Sprint more control over Clearwire’s considerable wireless spectrum holdings.

Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst this morning told Bloomberg News Sprint’s acquisition will make a Sprint-Clearwire combination more attractive to Softbank, which is buying a controlling interest in Sprint and wants firm ground in the U.S. market.

“It gives the combined company much more spectrum, much more ability to deliver services,” Kagan said.

But Sprint denied it was seeking a complete acquisition of Clearwire, which still has Intel and cable operator Comcast as part-owners.

Clearwire’s planned 4G TD-LTE network upgrade due to launch in 2013 is also a comfortable fit for Sprint’s new partner — Tokyo-based Softbank, which uses the same technology on its own 4G network in Japan. Softbank last week announced it would pay $20.1 billion for a controlling interest in Sprint-Nextel.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Faber Report Sprint Gains Control of Clearwire 10-18-12.flv

CNBC covers Sprint’s announced acquisition of a controlling interest in beleaguered Clearwire, and what impact the acquisition will likely have on Sprint shareholders. (3 minutes)

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Sprint, Clearwire in Advanced Talks to Be Acquired By Japanese Cell Provider Softbank

Softbank’s marketing is baffling to Americans. The company has produced more than 150 different ads featuring a “typical Japanese family” that is anything but. The Otosan (father) is portrayed as a white dog, accompanied by a more familiar Japanese mother, a daughter played by a famous Japanese pop star, and her African-American brother.

Softbank, Japan’s third largest cell phone company, is said to be in advanced talks with both Sprint-Nextel and Clearwire to acquire a $12.8 billion majority ownership interest in both companies, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

Softbank’s primary motivation isn’t a sudden interest in serving American cell phone users. It wants bigger discounts for expensive smartphones and other mobile equipment for its Japanese customers, and volume discount opportunities are wide open if the company can pool Sprint, Clearwire, and Softbank together as a single buyer.

CNBC reports Softbank originally sought a blockbuster deal with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, Sprint, and Clearwire to form one super-sized carrier, but the German owners of T-Mobile got cold feet and pulled out, fearing the Obama Administration’s antitrust concerns could ultimately torpedo the deal. DT recently proposed an offer for MetroPCS instead, a deal much more likely to pass regulator review.

The deal could provide much-needed financial backing for Sprint, currently embarked on its costly Network Vision plan to upgrade to 4G LTE service. Softbank also sees synergy with Clearwire, because both companies share the same frequencies and TDD LTE network technology, meaning smartphones compatible on one network will work on the other.

Sprint is still said to be considering making a counteroffer for MetroPCS, potentially pulling that company away from T-Mobile, while Leap Wireless’ Cricket also remains a potential takeover target.

Wall Street thinks a foreign player entering the U.S. market will have a much easier time winning regulator approval, because Softbank has no other interests in the U.S. market. The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission both ultimately rejected a previous attempt to merge AT&T and T-Mobile, fearing a larger AT&T would reduce competition and stifle innovation.

Softbank is a disruptive competitor in the Japanese cell phone market. It aggressively competes with KDDI and market leader NTT Docomo. The company is perhaps best known for its oddball, often mystifying marketing which features a talking dog interacting with well-known Hollywood stars, including Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Ads feature a typical Japanese family played by atypical actors — a strict father played by a talking dog, a more familiar Japanese mother, a daughter played by a famous Japanese pop star, and her African-American brother. The ads are almost incomprehensible to North American audiences used to a more direct marketing approach. But Japanese audiences love the ads they consider both funny and more importantly, unexpected.

That latter theme is particularly important to Softbank’s image in the Japanese cell phone market. With 98.6% of the country ethnically Japanese, the unexpected family underlines the company’s efforts to shake up conventional cell phone service. Softbank is known for introducing unique plans that target different groups of cell phone users often neglected by larger carriers. First to take a chance with the iPhone to appeal to youth, Softbank also sells plans targeting older users that emphasize unlimited calling to family members.

If Softbank brings this type of marketing to the United States, it could challenge T-Mobile as America’s most disruptive carrier. Just don’t expect a talking dog to close the sale.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Softbank Said to Be in Talks to Buy Sprint Nextel 10-11-12.flv

CNBC covers the deal between Sprint, Clearwire, and Softbank that originally also included T-Mobile USA.  (3 minutes)

 http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Softbank Tommy Lee Jones.flv

Softbank’s legendary ads have been running since June, 2007 and are beyond prolific. More than 150 different ads featuring “the Shirato family” have been produced so far, often with blockbuster Hollywood talent playing along. But most prove baffling to English-speaking audiences, such as this one featuring Tommy Lee Jones as a threatening maid with a uni-brow. (1 minute)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/SoftBank Quentin Tarantino.flv

Quentin Tarantino hams it up in these two impenetrable ads for Softbank. The rough translation from Japanese does not help much. It starts with the older woman asking Otosan (the dog) if he’s going to a town called Tosa. Otosan says yes. Then, the younger woman asks if Tarantino is also going, and he replies: “I am Tara!” (In the longer version, Tarantino does his Samurai impression “Hai-ya! Samurai spirit! Get him with the Samurai sword! Ho-ha!”)  Otosan responds, “I’m determined to go to Tosa!” The older woman tells Tarantino to calm down. When the phone rings, the younger woman says, “It’s the phone,” and the older woman says, “It’s your wife.” Tarantino gasps. The wife asks for Tara. Tarantino responds, “I am Tara!” His wife yells, “Get home right now!” (1 minute)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/SoftBank Brad Pitt.flv

Not every ad features the Shirato family. A barely recognizable Brad Pitt helps out while showing off some creative ways to use his built-in cell phone camera. (1 minute)

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The AT&T/Verizon Wireless Duopoly: “Humpty Dumpty Has Been Put Back Together Again”

AT&T and Verizon: The Doublemint Twins of Wireless

Wireless carriers other than AT&T and Verizon Wireless have joined forces asking federal regulators to help level the playing field in wireless competition.

At this week’s convention of the newly-relaunched Competitive Carrier Association (CCA), Sprint, T-Mobile USA, Clearwire, C Spire, and more than 100 other small regional rural carriers joined forces in Las Vegas to sound the alarm about a wireless duopoly restraining competition and raising prices for consumers.

“Humpty Dumpty has been put back together again,” said C Spire CEO Hu Meena. “And while the identical twins sometimes agree to meet and discuss industry issues with other industry players, they seldom, if ever, support action that might better the industry as a whole.”

C Spire should know. The company filed a lawsuit against AT&T earlier this year claiming the phone giant manipulated its 700MHz band allocation to lock C Spire customers out of getting access to the latest smartphones.

“At some point, and that time is coming, regulators and politicians are going to have to acknowledge they have a choice to make: they are going to have to decide whether the communications industry, the fundamental driver of the information economy, is going to be regulated by true, healthy competition or by the government,” Meena said.

In the last 20 years, rampant consolidation has reduced the number of national wireless carriers down to four — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Filling in the gaps are various regional providers, all who depend on one of the major four to provide reasonable roaming service for customers traveling beyond the service areas of smaller companies. Without reasonable roaming, competitors are left at a serious disadvantage.

Another major problem is access to the latest smartphones. Major manufacturers largely design and market cell phones for the largest four companies, often relegating smaller providers to sell older or less prominent phones to customers. When phones do not work on the spectrum acquired by smaller competitors, roaming becomes a problem.

But beyond those issues is the question of wireless spectrum. Traditionally sold in competitive auctions, the deepest pocketed companies traditionally win the bulk of frequencies, leaving competitors with less desirable spectrum that has difficulty penetrating buildings or requires a more robust cell tower network.

Meena

Members of the CCA recognize that mergers and consolidation can bring costs down through economy of scale, but in their eyes, AT&T and Verizon’s actions have promulgated a new paradigm for wireless on Wall Street: consolidation around a handful of wireless carriers is healthy; having too many competitors is inefficient.

“Consolidation can introduce business efficiencies,” said Michael Prior, CEO of Atlantic Tele-Network. “But government has a role in making sure that infrastructure is used in a way that works for the entire country. All we’re asking the FCC to do is to make sure there is a level playing field.”

Observers expect the CCA to ask the FCC to set aside spectrum in future wireless auctions exclusively for smaller carriers to help protect what competition still exists.

“There used to be dozens of railroad companies,” Prior noted. “But the government didn’t allow certain companies to develop rails that wouldn’t allow trains to interconnect to rails run by other companies.”

Meena warned the same thing could happen in the wireless industry.

“We know what happened in the first 20 years of the industry where we have had many healthy competitors,” Meena said. ”There remains a false hope among too many carriers that the duopoly will one day become reasonable. But, we all know, whether we choose to admit it or not, that until all competitive carriers become fully committed to work together for open competition, the wireless industry playing field will remain harmfully tilted toward the duopoly. They will never give an inch unless and until they have to do so.”

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Sprint Allows Its Majority Stake in Clearwire to Slip Below 50 Percent

Sprint Nextel has allowed its majority share in Clearwire Corporation to drop below 50 percent in a strategic move to rebalance its voting and economic interest in the wireless partnership.

Clearwire runs the WiMAX 4G network Sprint sells to its customers, but America’s third largest cell phone carrier shares that 4G network with several other companies that resell access under various brands, including Time Warner Cable Mobile, Best Buy Mobile, and a range of smaller “MVNOs,” which mostly offer prepaid access.

Clearwire’s troubled existence forced Sprint to reduce its involvement and ownership in the company last year, when some analysts predicted the company faced imminent default on its debt. Had that happened, Sprint would have found itself inextricably tied to Clearwire’s fate as a majority owner, and could have been forced to help bailout the enterprise.

Clearwire has been trying to reinvent itself after Sprint declared it planned to construct its own 4G LTE network that would gradually replace the older WiMAX technology Clearwire uses.  That news challenged Clearwire because Sprint in the largest user of the network, providing 9.7 million customers with access. Clearwire’s own retail service, under the Clear brand, has just 1.3 million customers. More than one-third of Clearwire’s income comes from Sprint.

As Sprint customers gradually depart from WiMAX, Clearwire is trying to find new markets reselling access to the older technology to prepaid startups and discount resellers including FreedomPop, NetZero, Simplexity, and most recently Jolt Mobile.

But even Clearwire understands the days of its WiMAX network are limited. The company plans to build its own TD-LTE 4G network to remain competitive, and will resell wholesale access to prepaid services and to larger concerns like Leap Wireless’ Cricket and Sprint as those companies work to gradually expand their own LTE networks.

Clearwire believes their enormous spectrum assets could help smaller wireless companies fulfill demand for 4G service, particularly if those companies lack sufficient spectrum to fully provide the service themselves.

“We believe that, as the demand for mobile broadband services continues its rapid growth, Sprint and other service providers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy their customers’ demands with their existing spectrum holdings,” Clearwire indicated in its last quarterly report. “By deploying LTE, we believe that we will be able to take advantage of our leading spectrum position to offer offload data capacity to Sprint and other existing and future mobile broadband service providers for resale to their customers on a cost effective basis.” .

Clearwire plans to have 5,000 TD-LTE cell sites functioning by mid-2013 and quickly grow the network to 8,000 cell sites nationwide. Among the first cities expected to get the new LTE 4G service first are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Clearwire 4G LTE Trials Results 1-2011.flv

Clearwire holds more wireless spectrum than any other American wireless company, with 150 MHz in the 2.5 GHz band in the nation’s top 100 metro areas. Unfortunately for them, their high frequency spectrum does not penetrate buildings  as well as lower frequencies, such as 700MHz (Verizon & AT&T), making reception problematic indoors, especially in areas where signal strength is lower. Despite that, Clearwire believes its huge swath of spectrum gives it the ability to deploy extremely wideband 4G LTE service, which this video shows can support faster speeds. But the tests were conducted outdoors, where Clearwire’s network typically performs better. (2 minutes)

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