WiMAX’s Backers Bet Big, Dream Bigger


With a promised transmission speed more than five times faster than current wireless networks, WiMAX’s promises are legion: the ability to 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.

Who could pass on such connectivity nirvana? No one, assuming a growing pool of deep-pocketed technology players is right on the money.

It’s the vision Sprint (NYSE: S) and Clearwire (NASDAQ: CLWR) pushed forward earlier this month when the two companies announced a staggering $14.5 billion WiMAX joint venture.

“This is truly about data, where today, it’s all about voice,” Leigh Horner, Sprint spokesperson, told InternetNews.com. “It’s about taking the desktop PC to work outside the office.”

The Clearwire WiMAX network, which aims to service up to 140 million U.S. users by 2010, has the support of Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), Comcast (NASDAQ: CMSCA), Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Bright House Networks, a cable provider. The partners are pledging $3.2 billion to finance the quest, as well as offering services and technology to support the effort.

Sprint Nextel this week also announced that its WiMAX technology had met its internal standards and will launch commercially later this year — ideally signifying that despite some early hurdles, WiMAX is on its way.

Diverging paths

But Sprint isn’t alone in its love for high-speed broadband. AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless are aiming to cash in on mobile broadband but by using a different technology, dubbed Long-Term Evolution (LTE).

LTE is a developing, advanced wireless mobile radio technology based on existing technologies like the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), GSM’s 3G mobile phone standard. LTE also has the blessing of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the industry body overseeing GSM and UMTS.

[cob:Pull_Quote]While LTE development is ongoing, its backers, which also include Nokia, see it as an upgrade path for existing investment in 3G phone networks, while providing similar throughput capabilities as WiMAX.

No matter which technology wins in the race to the finish line, at least three things are absolute: Enterprises have tons of time to plan for the network revolution, fierce competition will spur advanced features and better security and there’ll be an onslaught of services and software advancing mobile productivity.

Sprint’s news is “a significant step that will push much more effort into mobilizing applications and increasing use of Internet services,” Phillip Marshall, senior vice president of technology for the Yankee Group, told InternetNews.com.

“This will bring social networking, personalization and localization to mobile computing,” Marshall said, adding that mobile devices could eventually become point-of-sale devices and be used as credit cards are today. “It’s a change agent for these types of services … a window of opportunity to capitalize on user capabilities.”

[cob:Special_Report]Examples of the technology’s anticipated uses abound: Users could conduct live videoconferences from remote locations and download business presentations over distances of up to 30 miles using a WiMAX-enabled laptop or media device.

“This will bring visual computing into play,” Julie Coppernoll, Intel’s director of WiMAX marketing, told InternetNews.com. “It’s dependable, ubiquitous broadband that we don’t have today.”

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As Clearwire CTO John Saw explained to InternetNews.com, WiMAX will “replicate the home broadband experience anywhere and anytime.”

He added that WiMAX video streaming could help in emergency scenarios — for instance, helping firefighters coordinate battling fires in real time, or assisting medical personnel in emergency rooms.

“This could provide intelligent medical care, as real-time video from an accident to an emergency room lets paramedics beam up vital information on the road so that an ER is prepared before an injured person arrives,” he said.

Mobile broadband’s far greater speeds and bandwidth certainly look enticing to both consumers and businesses — particularly when compared with today’s network capabilities. Gartner research indicates that 40 percent of consumers show strong interest in mobile Internet access, but just 9 percent use it presently.

Yet not everyone is convinced the Sprint-Clearwire WiMAX league will deliver on its vision.

“This is so far off that enterprises don’t even have to start thinking about having to prepare,” Phillip Redman, vice president for telecom at Gartner, told InternetNews.com. “The key to making this a service differentiator is time to market, and Sprint has already experienced delays.”

Sprint’s first WiMAX effort with Clearwire ultimately crashed and burned just months later due to what Sprint described only as “business complexities” — no doubt to the chagrin of the carrier’s executives, who had earlier pledged to have spent $5 billion on its WiMAX rollout by 2010.

[cob:Special_Report]With Sprint’s track record, it’s not surprising that Redman said by the time the carrier finally makes good on delivering WiMAX, higher speeds or lower deployment costs could have long since tipped the scales in favor of LTE technology.

“The cost of infrastructure will be a factor,” he added.

Telecom analyst Jeff Kagan said that while players are touting advantages, no one is talking about what enterprises may need to do to bring the benefits of such high-speed capabilities in-house.

Kagan said that security would be one issue likely need addressing, much the same way it was with Wi-Fi.

“This will open a lot of opportunities for existing and new companies to come in with new services,” he said.

While specifics are slim, few dispute that WiMAX’s dramatically greater speeds could bring far greater enterprise productivity.

Yet Yankee Group’s Marshall cautioned that such capabilities won’t be arriving anytime soon, as he believes a global WiMAX network will take much more time and money than carriers expect.

“This is going to take a lot of investment in building out these networks and Sprint’s about $3 billion short,” he said. “But this is the start to lower-cost, portable broadband access.”

WiMAX’s stakeholders aren’t shying away from the fact that they have their work cut out for them.

“With any new technology, the kinks have to be worked out, and we learned lessons from Wi-Fi,” Saw said. “We’ve resolved a lot of issues and the ones left are not insurmountable.”

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