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Technology | Economy

Will WiMAX Prevail Where WiFi Failed?

There are many ways to access the Internet. You can do it through your cable or phone line at home; at a hot spot in an airport or coffee shop; or by phone through a digital or cellular network.

Well now, there’s yet another way.

A Seattle start-up launched ‘WiMAX’ in Portland Tuesday. As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the metro area is second in a long list of places around the country, scheduled to get the new technology over the next couple of years.

WiMAX isn't as odd as it might sound. It basically works like your cell phone.

WiMAXThe Seattle company Clearwire has spent the last two years putting transmitters on about 300 cell towers around the Portland area.  So if you’re on your laptop, and you’ve signed up with Clearwire, you can surf the web whether you’re wandering the streets or sitting at home.

Scott Richardson: “Well today we’re announcing that Portland ends up being the fastest unwired city in the west.”

Scott Richardson is the company's chief strategy officer. Speaking at the official roll-out, he said WiMAX is faster and often cheaper than other options.

It was a glitzy affair with free thumb drives and cup cakes; a lay-out of a WiMAX home;  even chauffeur driven limos and bicycle rickshaws — so people could cruise around town and try out the new system.

My favorite was the big green truck with a plexiglass box on the back.

Scott Richardson: “We dreamed up a moving vehicle that is all glass, that allows us to drive around town and people see what people are doing – they’re actually just surfing the web. So we’ve got a couch, a guy at an office table, it looks like they’re working at home. “

Kristian Foden-Vencil: “It looks great. I’m worried though. Because I see a lamp on a table, and pencils on a desk. Is everything nailed down and are they going to be strapped to their seats as they drive around.”

Scott Richardson: “They’re all fastened down and we’re told that if we go slow enough. And there is a speed limit, you don’t need to use seatbelts.”

And the marketing doesn’t stop there. People from Wilsonville to Vancouver, Washington, can expect door-hangers, billboards, direct mailings and TV commercials —  like this one showing a cup cake in a bakery with just a few sprinkles on it.

TV Commercial: “This is not a cupcake, it’s a wi-fi hotspot with a little bit of coverage.  These are the lap-top cards the phone companies offer. More coverage, but they’re kind of slow.”

Then it starts raining sprinkles all over the bakery.

TV Commercial: “And this is Clear. Clear covers entire cities with a super fast mobile internet called WiMAX. Welcome to the future.”

The ads are cute.

But in an economy that’s suffering the worst recession in decades, it’ll take more than cute to ensure success.

Afterall, Clearwire is banking on nothing short of muscling out the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

But Clearwire has impressive support. It’s raised billions of dollars from companies like Intel and Google.

Scott Richardson says the company's strategy is to simply give web users more for less.

Scott Richardson: “For the price that you have home broadband today, we can deliver you both your home connection, and the ability to take that connection out on your laptop and use it throughout the city.”

The service costs between $20 and $50 a month.

So the question is: Does it have a chance?  Portlander Sam Churchill runs the website

Sam Churchill: “Well I think it does because you get twice the speed at half the cost of cellular data and if you need to move around a lot it’s a better solution. If you have to move out of the city though, it’s not so hot. Because then you have nothing.”

Clearwire hopes to remedy that situation by opening WiMAX systems all over the country.

But first, it wants the 1.7 million people in the greater Portland area. And they might not be the easiest sell.

MetroFi, a California start-up,  spent the last few years trying to peddle a free wi-fi cloud around town. But that effort failed fairly miserably and MetroFi is currently in bankruptcy.