CES: Sprint's new wireless network

January 9, 2008 8:21:28 AM PST
With just a few months to go before the launch of its next-generation wireless network, Sprint Nextel Corp. has a distinctly modest lineup of compatible devices. At the International Consumer Electronics Show here this week, Sprint showed only two computer modems that will definitely be available in April, when its WiMax network becomes available outside current trials in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington.

One of the promises of WiMax, a service Sprint will be providing under the Xohm brand, is that receivers for it can be built into a variety of devices like cameras and Web tablets that usually don't have a built-in Internet connection or rely on Wi-Fi, a short-range technology.

"We fully expect an explosion of consumer devices," said Antone Porter, a product manager at Sprint.

The relative dearth of early WiMax gadgets isn't necessarily a sign of trouble for Sprint. Gemma Tedesco, an analyst at In-Stat, said the coverage area will be relatively small this year anyway, and Sprint's main task will be to build out the network.

"Unlike Wi-Fi, users' satisfaction will be dependent on the network coverage, and so Sprint really needs to have their metro areas well covered, to get users motivated; even this may take time, going into 2009 and beyond," she said.

Unlike Wi-Fi, WiMax signals reach for miles, and unlike cellular broadband, it's designed from the ground up for data. That could make WiMax cheaper than current cellular broadband, or 3G, which often costs around $60 a month for laptops.

Sprint hasn't disclosed pricing plans, but Atish Gude, senior vice president of mobile broadband operations at the company, said he suspects "it will be more affordable than 3G."

At launch, the two devices that will be able to connect to the network are a modem for homes or small-offices from ZyXEL Communications Corp. and a laptop modem from ZTE Corp.

The home modem resembles a huge coffee mug, with two antennas that look like handles. It's intended to make WiMax an alternative to wired broadband provided by phone and cable companies. In addition to providing Internet connectivity, it will have jacks for phone service to be provided over WiMax.

The first gadget to come with built-in WiMax capability may be a new model of the EeePC, a diminutive laptop from ASUSTek Computer. The Taiwanese company started selling a version of the cheap computer without WiMax in the fourth quarter of last year and has sold 350,000 globally, Chief Executive Jonney Shih said.

An Eee with built-in WiMax will be available in the second quarter, Shih said. A price has not been decided. The current Eee uses Linux, a free operating system, but it will be possible to use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP on future models, Shih said.

ASUS is also planning to build WiMax into full-size laptops, to be available in the second half of the year, with prices starting at $999.

San Francisco-based OQO Inc. demonstrated at the show a WiMax-equipped prototype of its small handheld Windows computer with slide-out keyboard. But the company did not say when or even if it would be commercially available. OQO already has models compatible with competing cellular broadband networks.

Finland's Nokia Corp., which is supplying Sprint with WiMax network equipment, has said it will build Intel Corp.'s WiMax chips into a Web tablet model in 2008 but hasn't said when.

The backing of Intel means several big-name laptop makers, like Toshiba Corp. and Lenovo, have committed to making WiMax-equipped models, but no details have emerged.

"A lot of times the first year of a technology's rollout is kind of experimental and bumpy - even with the various flavors of Wi-Fi this has happened, and WiMax is much more complicated," said Tedesco, the In-Stat analyst.

Tedesco said the fact that ZyXEL, a "high-volume, low-end networking equipment vendor," is entering the market will push other companies like D-Link, Belkin and Netgear to also make WiMax gear.