Where, Oh Where, Are WiMAX Handsets?

While WiMAX network deployments are right around the corner, actual handsets for the 4G high-speed data superhighway aren’t on the horizon, though other enabled devices are primed.

“They [handsets] should have been here by now but there have been no announcements, no hardware to review,” Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting for AR Communications told InternetNews.com. “Nothing’s live and it’s just been very quiet,” he said.

Well, quiet on the handset front, but not quiet on the network or even Internet-device WiMAX front. Nokia has enabled its N810 tablet, which retails for about $400, and there are 20 chip makers ready to push out WiMAX chips for lots of devices, according to Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S), which is just weeks away from green lighting Baltimore as its initial US WiMAX network effort.

WiMAX, based on the 802.16e standard, offers a transmission speed more than five times faster than current wireless networks. It lets users send huge data files from a smartphone, switch from a mobile phone network to a LAN without redialing, share documents in real-time videoconferences and essentially transport all the benefits of an office’s networked PC to conduct business on the road.

That type of data speed, said Sprint, is why the focus isn’t on handsets as it’s not a voice play.

“This [WiMAX] is well beyond cell phones. This is a data play, and an embedded device strategy,” John Polivka, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel, told InternetNews.com.

“The ecosystem is embedded chips in devices and there will be WiMAX devices in retail stores, and yes down the road there will be some dual-mode handsets,” said Polivka. “So we’re looking at video cameras, printers and gaming devices as WiMAX devices right now,” he explained.

Yet a dearth of WiMAX handsets could pose an adoption challenge, given that many mobile handset users are relying more on data services more than voice these days.

According to CTIA, a wireless association, data service revenues for the first half of this year hit $14.8 billion, representing a 40 percent jump compared with the first half of 2007 when revenues totaled $10.5 billion. All the non-voice use is helping carriers rake in big bucks. Total wireless service revenue hit $72 billion in just the first six months of this year. Revenues for the full year of 2007 were $71 billion.

Handsets will eventually come, according to Intel, once WiMAX networks have proven themselves.

“There is nothing that prohibits voice, and operators are looking at handsets, but it’s about waiting for the networks to be built out and getting everything working,” Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for Intel WiMAX Program Office, told InternetNews.com.

A big concern is making sure WiMAX networks provide the same voice expectations users enjoy today. “The handset piece will come but in the meantime it’s the notebooks and other devices that can move into play first,” said Coppernoll.

As one analyst noted, handsets will likely be a mix of WiMAX-only and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based.

“I don’t know of any WiMAX phones available right now, but vendors are working on them for future deployment,” said telecom analyst Jack Gold. “I’d expect to see some WiMAX VoIP phones from the same folks who make Wi-Fi phones,” said Gold, who predicts that in the meantime there will be lots of WiMAX devices from vendors such as Motorola given the handset maker is a major supplier of WiMax infrastructure.

Motorola, which didn’t respond to inquiries by press time, has made substantial investments on the WiMAX front, in terms of both network and enabled technologies.

Both Sprint and Motorola, along with other tech titans such as Clearwire and Intel are banking that market predictions around WiMAX will deliver. WiMAX subscribers are predicted to increase worldwide from 3.4 million to 27 million by 2011, according to a January 2007 Yankee Group report.

Sprint and Clearwire (NASDAQ: CLWR) are leading $14.5 billion joint venture to create a national WiMAX carrier. The venture also involves Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Sprint’s Baltimore networks, and its WiMAX infrastructure development system called Xohm, are the fruit of an effort that kicked off in August 2006. Xohm (pronounced ‘Zoam’) charter partners include Intel, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia.

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