Can WiMAX Save Sprint?

Will WiMAX become Sprint’s savior or albatross? It’s a question that the beleaguered company most likely wishes could be foretold in a crystal ball as it reportedly is seeking additional funding from backers such as Intel and Samsung, while restarting negotiations on jointly building a high-speed wireless broadband network with smaller operator Clearwire. A couple of interesting tidbits revealed by Samsung at its news conference at the four-day Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is that Sprint’s soft launch of its Xohm WiMAX service will occur in April in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore. Apparently, the previously announced soft launch in mid-December was really, really soft and limited only to Sprint employees in the Baltimore area. Sprint plans to begin selling the service to paying customers at some point in 2008, but Samsung says it isn’t expected to have nationwide coverage until 2010. That date is important, since decisions by Sprint’s rivals could overtake the WiMAX move. Both AT&T and Verizon have committed to a technology called Long-Term Evolution, which expands on existing GSM networks. That technology could arrive as early as 2010, erasing the lead time Sprint had to get consumers aboard. Worse, in Japan, another important market for WiMAX in terms of influence, Samsung predicts a nationwide network won’t be up and running there until 2013. The picture isn’t entirely gloomy for Sprint, though. Samsung says Sprint has received commitments from a variety of consumer electronics and pc makers to deliver an astounding 50 million devices to consumers over three years. (Somebody better tell Apple that Samsung showed an iPod in a slide outlining that category). The ubiquity of devices that can easily connect to a WiMAX network, either in pay-as-you-go, subscription service or pre-paid categories, will be key to its success. Balancing all those factors out is surely to be keeping Sprint’s new management up at night.

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