Sprint takes wireless service to the max in Baltimore

Monday, Sprint will launch wireless WiMax services in Baltimore, marking the beginning of what could become a new era in mobile broadband.

The mobile data network — which will be marketed under the Xohm brand name — is designed to cater to the needs of laptop and home broadband users, not cellphone users.

Prices will start at $10 for a day pass, good for 24 hours of unlimited usage. Monthly service starts at $35. There are no contracts.

To use the service, Baltimore customers will have to buy a special WiMax "aircard" or modem, which cost about $45 apiece. There are also special launch discounts, including a $50-a-month plan that offers subscribers unlimited data usage for life.

Voice services will eventually be added, Xohm President Barry West says. For now, Xohm customers can easily use any Internet telephony service, such as Skype.

The network, which provides a lot of bandwidth, can also handle high-definition video streaming, peer-to-peer file sharing and other capacity-guzzling applications, says Lee Mellon, a Sprint field technician who has been testing the WiMax network in Baltimore for weeks.

In Baltimore, Sprint is promising 2 to 4 megabits per second, though it says surfing speeds can rocket to 10 megabits or more, depending on the number and type of applications running. Conventional 3G wireless networks, such as the one AT&T uses to support the Apple iPhone, average about 1.4 megabits.

Such is the potential of WiMax, a powerful but so far largely unproven mobile technology, that it can, Sprint says, turn whole cities — or countries — into one, giant hot spot.

Eager to move things along, Sprint is merging WiMax assets with Clearwire, a small carrier backed by cellular entrepreneur Craig McCaw. Over time, they plan to turn the USA into a single, seamless surfing zone. The merger is expected to close by year's end. The combined company, which will be publicly traded, will be called Clearwire. Backers include Google, Intel and Comcast.

WiMax networks are under construction in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; Dallas/Fort Worth; and Chicago. All are scheduled to be ready by early next year. By the end of 2009, 60 million to 80 million consumers are expected to have access to WiMax. By 2011, 200 million will, the companies predict.

One big obstacle for Xohm is that it will initially be limited to downtown Baltimore, says Roger Entner, senior vice president at Nielsen IAG.

If Sprint can prove its WiMax case, consumers could win big, says Shahid Khan, a senior partner at IBB Consulting: "They'll have better services and better devices at better prices."