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9/1/2006
03:22 PM
Elena Malykhina
Elena Malykhina
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Wireless Broadband Hasn't Lived Up To Expectations...Yet

The top cellular carriers all claim to have launched wireless broadband services, but they're still mostly intended for laptop users who are limited by not-so-bandwidth-intensive applications or on-the-go Web access. A desktop-type experience on mobile devices won't come to fruition for another couple of years, until WiMax and the ilk start delivering better network

The top cellular carriers all claim to have launched wireless broadband services, but they're still mostly intended for laptop users who are limited by not-so-bandwidth-intensive applications or on-the-go Web access. A desktop-type experience on mobile devices won't come to fruition for another couple of years, until WiMax and the ilk start delivering better network coverage and data speeds in the megabits. The carriers definitely have their work cut out for them.Wireless broadband will become a reality once a nationwide WiMax network is deployed. Sprint's recent news of a partnership with Intel, Motorola, and Samsung to roll out such a network by 2008 is a hopeful sign. More near-term, Sprint is upgrading its third-generation cellular network to improve current voice services as well as its data services. Sprint's ambitious goal to reach about 100 million people with its WiMax network in two years has to be backed by more customers. The latest numbers show Sprint falling behind its competitors after adding 708,000 new customers in the second quarter of this year, compared with Cingular's 1.5 million customers and Verizon Wireless' 1.8 million in the same quarter. Sprint also got the lowest customer score among the top cellular carriers in a study released by Forrester Research earlier this month. However, Forrester rated Sprint as having the highest potential net gain among the carriers. I'm guessing WiMax has a lot to do with it.

With big players like Intel and Motorola by its side, Sprint has enough resources to get WiMax off the ground. But the carrier has a lot on its plate at the moment, considering it's still doing integration work following its merger with Nextel. Sprint CEO Gary Forsee is taking over the company's operations after the departure of COO Len Lauer. Sprint won't comment on the specific reason for Lauer leaving, only citing a change in the company's organizational structure. I'm hearing rumors that Lauer might have been pushed out as a result of Sprint's financial underperformance.

Sprint could gain more customers by expanding its services to new geographic areas or by improving coverage in existing cities and towns. It's currently bidding in the FCC's Advanced Wireless Services auction in partnership with several cable providers under the name SpectrumCo in hopes of snatching additional spectrum. There's definitely room for improvement when it comes to its current voice network. Many mobile users remain dissatisfied with the quality of their cellular services, citing things like spotty coverage and dropped calls. And the problem isn't exclusive to Sprint. I'm a Cingular customer, and I consider myself lucky if I get three bars showing up on my cell phone in my neighborhood.

Ultimately, whatever Sprint and its top competitors, including Cingular, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile, plan to offer on their networks will have to live up to this idea of wireless broadband. The current selection of services offered by these guys hardly qualifies as true wireless broadband capable of handling rich apps like video telephony, video messaging, and large file uploads. The average rate a user experiences on current EV-DO networks is between 300 and 600 Kbps, which would increase to between 450 and 800 Kbps with EV-DO Revision A, the next-generation technology that Sprint and Verizon Wireless are upgrading to. Prices for laptop connection cards and data services have come down typically to between $50 and $60 a month. Compare that to $80 a month when Verizon Wireless first launched its EV-DO service in 2004. But the carriers haven't brought down prices enough yet for people to make good use of advanced features in smart phones and PDAs. How can they when the carriers often charge quadruple the fee for wireless bandwidth equivalent to a 56 Kbps dial-up connection?

With mobile WiMax and similar technologies, people could browse the Web on their PDAs and smart phones at speeds of up to 40 Mbps over distances of up to 6 miles without interruption. That's kind of like saying we're close to seeing the first commercial flight launched into space, but we're not there yet. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, although Intel has yet to deliver on its promise of an integrated Wi-Fi and WiMax chipset for laptops and mobile devices that will let people connect to the Internet at similar speeds and distances while riding in buses or walking around. Plus, people need to start buying into this in masses.

I'd be interested to find out what you mobile users out there think. Is wireless broadband at the top of your list of priorities, or are you still dissatisfied with the carriers' voice services and would like them to improve those above all else?

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