RealTime IT News

WiMAX Wherever I May Roam?

WiMAX, a technology that enables high-speed Internet access on mobile devices that is much faster than current cellular service, took its next step toward becoming a reality.

Phone carrier Sprint Nextel and wireless provider Clearwire today agreed to build the first nationwide mobile broadband network using WiMAX technology, a move that will soup up Web access on mobile devices should the network come to fruition in 2008 as expected.

WiMAX, which operates more than five times faster than today's wireless networks, can allow workers to conduct live video conferences from remote locations, or let consumers play whole movies via laptops, mobile phones and other handheld devices.

Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff said on a conference call the joint network will give Sprint and Clearwire enhanced services and capabilities that "are well beyond the capabilities that either company expected to offer on its own."

"The ability to have mobile end user devices that are always on and always with the person and that have the benefit of true broadband speed will enable a whole new generation of Internet-based services, content and applications," Wolff said.

In a 20-year deal with three 10-year renewal periods, Sprint Nextel will target areas covering approximately 185 million people. Clearwire will focus on areas covering approximately 115 million people.

The two companies, which will market mobile WiMAX services under a common service brand, expect to roll out WiMAX for 100 million people by the end of 2008, with roaming enabled between areas where the WiMAX network has been deployed.

While Sprint Nextel will take the lead in establishing relationships with national distributors and other strategic partners, Clearwire will be able to offer Sprint's 3G voice and data services as part of a bundle or on a standalone basis to its customers.

The deal also calls for Sprint and Clearwire to exchange 2.5GHz radio spectrum so each company may build out its portion of the network.

Wolff added that the two companies will work together to ensure network interoperability and to propel the WiMAX ecosystem by working with multiple vendors and OEMs, including Motorola , Samsung and Nokia , on PCs, handsets and consumer electronics that can leverage a mobile WiMAX network.

Sprint, which pledged last August to make a $1 billion investment in WiMax and reaffirmed its commitment at NXTcomm last month, expects to begin rolling out its first mobile WiMAX network deployments by the end of 2007.

Industry analysts were optimistic about the deal.

"It is about time that this happened," Yankee Group analyst Philip Marshall told internetnews.com in an e-mail. "It certainly makes sense and creates greater capital concentration for the network roll out, which is critical for WiMAX at this stage."

Marshall also said the deal could be the precursor for closer relationships between the two companies and the possibility for Sprint's 4G business to be spun off and merged with Clearwire.

But before that even happens, Sprint and Clearwire hope to close the current deal in the next 60 days, barring any resistance from the Department of Justice or Federal Communications Commission, which must approve spectrum license assignments and transfers.

Such approval is hardly a foregone conclusion these days, with the winds of uncertainty and controversy swirling around wireless spectrum allocation.

In January, the FCC will auction a large chunk of 700MHz spectrum, space being vacated by television broadcasters as part of the digital TV transition, which is highly coveted by Sprint, AT&T and Verizon .

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is proposing anyone who wins the spectrum must make it an open access network, meaning consumers can attach any legal device and run any legal application on the network. This does not please the telecoms, which don't want open access for fear of losing control of the network.

Meanwhile, with the WiMAX pact, Sprint would seem to gain a competitive edge versus AT&T and Verizon, which don't yet have the same WiMAX clout. Clearwire, created by pioneer Craig McCaw, went public in March and is looking to build on its fast start.

The company agreed to let satellite TV providers DirectTV and EchoStar offer their customer wireless Internet service.

Roy Mark, internetnews.com Washington bureau chief, contributed to this report.