Mobile broadband hits the air

Speed is the real draw. Sprint is promising average speeds of 2 to 4 megabits, though surfing speeds can rocket to 10 megabits or more. The technology itself is capable of higher speeds.

AT&T t and Verizon vz aren't exactly sitting on their hands. Both have announced plans to upgrade their 3G networks to a 4G technology known as LTE, or "Long Term Evolution." LTE, like WiMax, offers significantly better performance.

Moving to LTE will be expensive and time-consuming, however. For that reason, LTE-based services probably won't hit the market until 2012 at the earliest, predicts Jane Zweig, CEO of The Shosteck Group, which tracks the wireless industry.

Shahid Kahn, a senior partner with IBB Consulting in Princeton, N.J., says consumers are the biggest beneficiaries of the coming contest between WiMax and LTE.

"In the long term, consumers could come out as winners, because they'll have better services, better devices and better prices," he says.

That said, Kahn thinks Sprint and Clearwire have a tough slog ahead. Launching service in Baltimore "is just the beginning of the battle," he says. "They still have to market to consumers and convince them (that WiMax) is better" than conventional 3G offerings, which, while not as fast, still deliver good performance. "It's a high hurdle."

Capacity builds confidence

Roger Entner, a senior vice president at Nielsen IAG, says one of the biggest hurdles is lack of ubiquity. After two years of chipping away at it, Sprint has only upgraded about 1,300 of its 65,000 cell sites nationwide. Before WiMax can claim national status, it will have to upgrade another 34,000 or so. That will take at least two years.

"That's a lifetime in the wireless business," Entner says.

Charles Golvin, a senior wireless analyst at Forrester, agrees. "The lack of ubiquitous service — that's going to be a big disconnect for many consumers."

Wolff says he's not worried. "Once you get used to that (WiMax) experience, it'll be like a broadband customer trying to go back to dial-up."

Intel, the big chipmaker, is working with a number of hardware makers to develop a crush of WiMax-enabled devices. The result: More than 100 WiMax-enabled devices — air cards, PCs and residential modems — are now in the final stages of certification. They'll start hitting the market later this year.

Over time, Wolff says the plan is have WiMax built into laptops and PCs, as well as consumer products such as cameras and even automobiles. Think video streaming to moving cars.

The real sweet spot, however, is spectrum. Sprint and Clearwire own 150 megahertz — enough to provide high-performance WiMax from Maine to Malibu — of 4G spectrum. (The entire load will go to the new Clearwire.) AT&T and Verizon own only about 25 megahertz apiece of 4G spectrum.

Barry West, Xohm president, says that big difference is the main reason he doesn't worry too much about competitors. "I don't think they can do anything" to counter-punch if WiMax takes off, he says.

Why so confident? One word: capacity. In the wireless world, surfing speed is determined by capacity, and capacity is determined by the amount of wireless spectrum you own.

Take Baltimore. The only reason Xohm can handle bandwidth-guzzling applications such as high-definition video and "peer-to-peer" file sharing is due to the massive amount of capacity that Sprint has at its disposal. Most wireless carriers wouldn't even attempt that. Not enough juice.

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