Sprint's Limited WiMAX Launch Imminent

BARCELONA, Spain--While WiMAX Forum members enthusiastically pointed to dozens of WiMAX products on display here at the Mobile World Congress, a Sprint official acknowledged that the much ballyhooed successor to the network's current EVDO mobile broadband has yet to begin its oft-postponed soft launch in the U.S.

"This year there are close to 50 exhibits with products," WiMAX Forum president and CEO Ron Resnick told a news conference. "Products are here, WiMAX is here."

Resnick, an executive with Intel's Mobility Group, said there have been over 260 commercial deployments of WiMAX in 110 countries. Intel has been a big backer of WiMAX. The WiMAX Forum certifies WiMAX products much the way the Wi-Fi Alliance certifies Wi-Fi products for compatibility.

Forum members say the technology delivers, on average, real-world speeds of 3- to 5 megabits per second for downloads, 1- to 1.5 mbps for uploads.

Ali Tabassi, Sprint's vice president for technology development, told the group that WiMAX was superior to a rival 4G technology, LTE (Long-Term Evolution), at least in part because it was available now. ("LTE stands for Late to Evolve," he said.) LTE rollouts, he added, would not begin until 2010 or 2011. AT&T Wireless and Verizon have expressed interest in LTE as a successor to their current 3G mobile broadband technologies, HSDPA and EVDO, respectively.

Sprint, suffering from financial setbacks, has had its own problems rolling out its WiMAX service, which it plans to market under the brand name Xohm (pronounced Zoom). The company had intended to deploy its service in cooperation with Clearwire, but last November the two companies cancelled a letter of intent to work together.

Since then Sprint has had a management change, and it's unclear what its CEO of less than two months, Dan Hesse, will do about WiMAX, which would require billions in investment at a time when subscriber numbers are falling.

Although Tabassi said the soft launch was going forward this spring in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., he also said he was waiting "for finalization of our budget." Tabassi said Sprint would at least cooperate with Clearwire on roaming agreements so the two companies don't duplicate WiMAX buildouts.

But he acknowledged that Sprint's WiMAX network was unlikely to reach 100 million subscribers, as the company had previously envisioned, by the end of 2008.

The first WiMAX devices will likely be USB dongles, PC Cards, and home modems, followed by ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) and portable media players, perhaps later this year, Forum officials said.

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