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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.
For its part, Sprint struck a competitive tone. "What do our competitors answer with?" asked West. "Nothing. They'll have nothing for two years. We are the only company with the assets available now and the services ready today."

But Sprint needs to move fast if it is to keep itself competitive with coming Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology that's been embraced by AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which are the two largest wireless carriers in the country ahead of Sprint and T-Mobile. Though the technology lags behind WiMax in maturity and won't be available for at least two years, LTE would be an upgrade of the current cellular network, rather than requiring a whole new network to be built. That's one reason Sprint's merger with Clearwire is vital for success.

Both WiMax and LTE are based on the same underlying technology, called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, but there's no planned interoperability between the two. "It's a bit of a religious debate at this point," says Fred Wright, senior VP of home and networks mobility for Motorola, which will manufacture equipment for both technologies.

Sprint and its partners also need WiMax's price to stay low if they intend to be successful. West estimates WiMax chips can be available at the same cost as Wi-Fi chips, and Xohm costs roughly the same as fixed broadband from traditional ISPs and is cheaper than some existing 3G services.

A large ecosystem of available products will be another key to WiMax's success. Lenovo today launched the ThinkPad X301, T400, SL300, and SL500 and said the ThinkPad W500, W700, SL400, X200, and IdeaPad Y530 are on the way soon. Asus has the F8Va-C2WM for $1,599 and the N50Vn and M50Vm, both from $1,399. Three more Asus WiMax laptops are due by the end of the year. Acer is offering the Aspire 4930-6862 and 6930-6771, both for $899.99. Finally, Toshiba introduced the U405-ST550W and said it will add more notebooks to the WiMax lineup as coverage expands.

Most of the laptops made available Wednesday were aimed at consumers, but Panasonic said it will likely have business and government in mind with the laptops and devices it has due out next year. In addition, Panasonic executives said in an interview, the company is in early discussions with Sprint about other consumer devices like cameras that it could WiMax-enable in the future.

In addition to laptops, Xohm devices like modems and ExpressCards will be available through independent retailers, select Best Buy stores, mall kiosks, online through Sprint and partners like Nokia and Newegg.com, as well as via telesales and door-to-door salesmen.