Mobile broadband hits the air

The Italian Job, a Hollywood action flick starring Charlize Theron, is streaming live to a laptop computer. Speed: about 3 megabits a second.

What makes this demonstration so unusual is that the movie is streaming in triplicate to a laptop in a Sprint minivan that's tearing around downtown Baltimore.

"That's better than most people can get at home," says Sprint technician Lee Mellon, pointing to the trio of Hollywood-perfect video streams. "WiMax rocks."

The question is: Will anybody care?

Sprint s is about to find out. Baltimore recently became the first city in the USA to go live with WiMax. Short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, WiMax is a fourth-generation (4G) wireless technology that can turn whole cities into one big hot spot. Sprint has an even grander vision: It wants to turn the entire USA into a mobile surfing zone.

The mobile data network is designed to cater to the needs of mobile laptop users, not cellphone users, for a fee. Because the speeds are so fast — 10 megabits or better, potentially — it could easily be used as a replacement for DSL or cable modem service in the home and office.

Sprint has been deploying WiMax here for months on the theory that once people get a taste for its speed, they won't want to go back to conventional mobile networks.

Sprint's partner in this massive undertaking is Clearwire, clwr a small Seattle-based carrier that has long extolled the virtues of WiMax. The warm embrace is owed, in part, to the vision of its chairman, cellular pioneer Craig McCaw.

Sprint and Clearwire are merging WiMax assets to create a new company dedicated to the 4G technology. (The new company will also be called Clearwire.) Financial backers include Google, goog Intel intc and Comcast. cmcsa

Ben Wolff, CEO of Clearwire — he'll also head the combined company — says WiMax is good for consumers. "We're on the cusp of giving people a brand new Internet experience" by offering true mobile broadband, he says. "WiMax is the next generation of the Internet."

If he's right, WiMax could wind up ushering in a new era in mobile broadband, one that is defined by seamless performance and super-fast Internet cruising speeds. That could have a dramatic impact on the expectations of wireless consumers, putting pressure on big rivals to improve their game.

If Wolff is wrong, WiMax could become just another example of how difficult it is to change the status quo in a business dominated by giants, particularly when it comes to a big-money game such as wireless.

A contest ahead

While rivals keep an eye peeled on Baltimore, Sprint and Clearwire are moving ahead. WiMax networks in five markets — Chicago, Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, Washington and Dallas/Fort Worth — will go live by early 2009, Wolff says.

By the end of 2009, WiMax will be available to 60 million to 80 million consumers; by 2010, up to 140 million, he predicts. As early as 2011, assuming consumer demand develops, WiMax could be available to more than 200 million.

But it all starts with Baltimore. The service is currently marketed as "Xohm," Sprint's WiMax brand name. That will probably change after the merger closes.

To use Xohm, for now, you'll need a special WiMax air card or modem. Cost: Around $45. (Discounts may apply, depending how much you buy.) Prices start at $10 for a day pass — good for 24 hours worth of unlimited usage. Monthly service starts at $30. Contracts are not required, or even available.

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