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10/8/2008
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Sprint Faces WiMax Challenges, Despite Growing Device Availability

The company has already raised $3.2 billion from investors to build the network, though it will cost an estimated total of $5 billion.

Sprint Xohm CTO Barry West stood Wednesday before an audience in Baltimore and cut through a long rope of twisted pair cable, symbolizing (he said) the dawn of the mobile broadband age and the emergence of WiMax as a live technology in the United States.

The reality is more complicated, but on this day anyway, Sprint and its partners were out in force with new WiMax products and optimistic forecasts.

Last week, Sprint began offering WiMax service to Baltimore, the first city in what Sprint says will eventually become a nationwide mobile broadband network, and the company Wednesday held a celebration of sorts to kick off the $5 billion, multiyear initiative.

"The United States has made a major step toward a mobile broadband network," West said at the event. "It means everything will come with WiMax. Xohm will extend the home and office Internet experience to anywhere."

At the event, four notebook manufacturers (Toshiba, Asus, Acer, and Lenovo) launched new WiMax-enabled notebooks, while Sprint announced plans for a service and devices available later this year that would allow customers to roam between its current 3G network and the new WiMax network, Xohm, likely for an additional fee. Sprint also said that Dell, Panasonic, and Sony would be shipping WiMax-enabled devices by next year.

Despite the deepening global credit crisis, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said Sprint's WiMax plans remained intact. The company already has raised $3.2 billion from investors to build the network, though it will cost an estimated total of $5 billion. "Capital's a good thing to have these days," Hesse said. However, it's obvious Sprint is still looking hard for the rest of the money, as CTO West joked that if there were any investors in the audience who wanted to infuse some cash, they should see him.

Sprint chose to launch its network in Baltimore because the city posed some unique challenges, such as an abundance of water and thick brick buildings. However, it also represents an opportunity to build a lucrative market early, since it's right next to Washington, D.C., which will be among the next few cities to get Xohm. Sprint has put up 180 WiMax towers (antennas, really) in Baltimore out of a total of 300 that will be built there, and said that early take-up has been faster than expected.

Several more cities will get Xohm soon if Sprint stays on track. Next up after Baltimore are Washington and Chicago by the end of the year, with Boston; Providence, R.I.; Philadelphia; Dallas; and Fort Worth to follow soon thereafter. West noted that some blogs have discovered the ability to sign on to the Xohm network early in a few of those cities. If a proposed joint venture with Clearwire goes through by the end of the year as Hesse said today he expects, the network will grow further: Clearwire has already built out a pre-WiMax network in smaller cities around the country and will add significantly to the amount of spectrum available to Sprint.

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