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In Depth: Sprint Nextel's WiMax Pick Spurs The Wireless Broadband Race

The company is staking $3 billion on WiMax for its next-generation wireless data network. Its rivals are going i in other directions.
Companies eager to get a broadband pipe into their wireless computing devices just got a better idea of how and when those services will arrive. Sprint Nextel blessed the promising-but-unproven WiMax technology for mobile broadband, saying it will spend up to $3 billion over the next two years to build out its "fourth-generation" wireless broadband network.

Sprint Nextel is the first U.S. wireless carrier to embrace mobile WiMax, a huge victory for the technology's backers, led by Intel and Motorola. WiMax is supposed to deliver much faster data speeds across greater distances than cellular and Wi-Fi. Assuming Sprint Nextel can overcome the challenges of implementing the new technology, businesses and consumers could see a new class of mobile devices supporting bandwidth-intensive services such as video, video calling, and hefty data transfers as early as 2008.

Sprint Nextel optimistically predicts that as many as 100 million people will be within reach of its network in two years. WiMax promises to cover up to two miles from one base station and deliver speeds of up to 12 Mbps, compared with 128 Kbps to sev- eral megabits per second on third-generation wireless networks.

Sprint Nextel's decision doesn't anoint WiMax as the one and only way to deliver next-generation wireless broadband. As the No. 3 U.S. wireless carrier, with more than 51 million subscribers on its digital cellular network, it's influential but hardly dictates market standards. The top two carriers, Cingular and Verizon Wireless, are pursuing their own next-generation networks based on existing CDMA and GSM cellular technologies, not WiMax, with some services already being offered. However, Sprint Nextel is the largest U.S. owner of spectrum approved for WiMax. If it had passed on the technology, it would have been a near death blow to its use in the States. Now, Sprint Nextel's network will be the main proving ground.

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Most important to businesses is that Sprint Nextel is committing cash to build the network--$1 billion next year and $1.5 billion to $2 billion in 2008. IT professionals like George Chizmar are ready to take what they've learned about Web interactivity and apply it to customers and employees on the move. Chizmar, VP of IT at Apple Vacations, envisions guests riding from the airport to a resort using a wireless handheld to browse excursion options, perhaps clicking on a video showing snorkeling with dolphins. He sees them booking those day trips using an online reservation system before they even reach the resort.

Sprint Nextel tested WiMax with a group of real estate agents who used mobile devices to record video of homes for sale and transfer the video to a company server using a link similar to WiMax. When meeting with potential buyers, they could pull up a video library of property listings on those same devices, letting buyers decide on the spot what's worth visiting. "There are a whole lot of business applications that could emerge in a very short time," says Barry West, Sprint Nextel's CTO.

The IT staff at Skanska USA Building wants it all from a next-gen wireless network: better coverage and faster data speeds. The construction contractor and management company has issued BlackBerrys to more than 1,000 employees, including contractors and superintendents who use a project-management function integrated into E-mail.

Once workers get a taste of mobile data, they want more. "We're constantly challenged to deliver applications and information to remote users," says Allen Emerick, director of IT, applications, and integration at Skanska. Employees now use cellular or Wi-Fi networks to link to the company's back-end systems, but coverage is spotty.

Partners Must Come Through
Forthcoming Intel chips will be a linchpin in enabling devices that latch onto the Sprint Nex- tel network. Intel last month said it will deliver later this year a chipset called Rosedale 2 that will make it easier to access WiMax from mobile computers. The company also expects to have a chipset that can access fixed and mobile WiMax and Wi-Fi--code-named Ofer-R--ready by 2008. These chips will be embedded into ultramobile PCs that are lighter and smaller than current models, says Scott Richardson, VP and general manager of Intel's Mobility Group.

Motorola is working with Intel to develop devices that can handle multimedia applications without consuming a lot of battery power, says Richard Nottenburg, Motorola's chief strategy officer. Motorola also will supply Sprint Nextel with network infrastruc-ture like base stations and access points, and it brings experience from other mobile WiMax deployments, including a recent trial in Tokyo (done in conjunc- tion with Softbank Group) and a nationwide rollout in Pakistan.