Mobile Broadband Moving Beyond the Small Screen

BOSTON — Pssst! Want to know the secret to success in mobile broadband?

First, stop thinking of a cell phone as, well, a cell phone. Today’s voice and data access-capable phones are “really Swiss Army knives,” said Sprint Nextel vice president of corporate strategy Jack Dziak.

Dziak spoke here yesterday at the Mobile Internet World conference, describing how easily mobile phones can slice through Web pages and pluck data from furthest corners of the Internet.

Heck, just forget about cell phones altogether, added World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) director and One Web guru Tim Berners-Lee, also speaking at the conference. According to the Web pioneer, consumer technology is moving toward a world in which all devices will be covered in changeable pixels that can be used to present messages and content — sort of a Times Square-like scenario.

“So, the screen is getting less and less important,” he said.

That may be just one major change wireless service providers must contend with, since they’ll be “inevitably disrupted” by the ballooning capabilities of the mobile Internet, added Berge Ayvazian, chief strategy officer at the Yankee Group and conference co-chair.

That’s just fine, said Sprint’s Dziak, who is charged with plotting a course for the multi-billion-dollar company as mobile networks and broadband collide.

Sprint’s plan is to parlay growing interest and use of mobile broadband into steady income stream — not a far stretch considering about 20 percent of Sprint’s $59 billion in wireless revenue already comes from the mobile Internet side.

The twist is that Sprint does not intend to put all its marbles in cellular-based mobile broadband. Eventually, the company plans to make the switch to faster and more reliable WiMAX to channel mobile data to the 211 million and growing Internet users presently in the U.S. and the roughly two billion wireless-aware devices worldwide.

“What we are seeking is a paradigm shift,” he said. “WiMAX is the new and flexible platform for voice, data and multimedia and all sorts of applications and content.”

The position is in keeping with Sprint’s investment in mobile Internet technology and its previous commitment to move quickly into WiMAX communications, which will require even greater investment on its part.

Sprint has lined up a number of partners including Intel, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung to support its WiMAX technology, which it calls Xohm. Previously, the company has indicated that Xohm’s first deployments may come in early 2008.

Yet that plan now may be in doubt. Just last week, Sprint ended its agreement with another key partner, Clearwire, in a move that industry analysts said is likely to seriously delay the carrier’s efforts to launch its nationwide WiMAX broadband network.

WiMAX faces additional obstacles as well — chiefly, the challenge of trying to build a business on faster and more robust architectures that are designed for more than merely mobile phones.

“You have to think beyond the handset and look at the 130 million consumer and business devices in the U.S.,” Dziak said, pointing out that WiMAX networks could provide connectivity between those products and a new generation of devices.

Other hurdles include challenges in innovation and distribution, service affordability, and developing products that appeal to the Facebook and MySpace generation, conference speakers said.

Fortunately, at least some of those concerns might be mitigated by the flexibility afforded by new, more robust wireless Internet availability.

“The mobile Web initiative provides an opportunity to think about solutions that will actually impact all areas,” said Keith Waters, director of research at Orange Labs in Boston.

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