Can something called WiMAX succeed where other technologies have failed and bring us ultrafast anytime-anywhere wireless data? A couple of years ago promoters said municipal Wi-Fi would do the job, but projects from San Francisco to Philadelphia have been abandoned or scaled back after smashing into economic and technical realities.
The fast 3G networks currently offered by the likes of Verizon Wireless and AT&T (T) are a step up from EDGE and other second-generation networks. But they still offer only limited coverage. And while 3G is fast enough to pump Web pages to iPhones and other smartphones, it can be painfully slow feeding the bigger data appetites of laptops, whose users expect to stream music and watch video. And it is pricey, typically $60 a month for a computer connection.
WiMAX is the latest wireless technology to come on the scene, using very smart physics to achieve extra-high speeds. XOHM, a joint venture of Sprint Nextel (S) and Clearwire (CLWR), has just switched on the first U.S. commercial WiMAX net-work in Baltimore. I took a trip there with a new WiMAX-ready Lenovo (LNVGY) ThinkPad X301 to try it. The experience left me encouraged by the promise of this fourth-generation wireless technology.
XOHM claims average download rates of 2 to 4 megabits per second. When I ran some commercial speed tests, I consistently got downloads at about 3 mb and uploads at 500 kb and 1 mb. That's a bit slower than typical cable service, especially on the download side, but significantly faster than most DSL lines and about three times faster than what I have usually seen on 3G data networks. Perhaps most important, it's fast enough for good-quality video. While someone else drove me around Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood, I was able to watch Hulu.com's broadcast-quality video with no freezes or pauses to wait for data.
If you happen to live in Baltimore—in the two-thirds of the city that currently has WiMAX coverage—you can get XOHM on-the-go service for $30 a month for six months, rising to $45 after that. At-home service, which requires the purchase of an $80 modem, costs $25 a month, going to $35 after six months. You can combine both services for $50 a month, guaranteed for as long as you maintain the service. XOHM is also available on a month-to-month basis with no contract required, or you can purchase daily service for $10.
XOHM behaves like a 3G network in important ways. Once you've signed up, your computer will automatically connect to XOHM without the need for any sort of login. And since WiMAX is a cellular technology, your Internet connection moves from one cell tower to the next as you drive. In my test, these handoffs were seamless.
WiMAX, like Wi-Fi before it, will require coordination among computermakers. Intel (INTC), which has invested a couple billion dollars in XOHM, is trying to follow its Centrino strategy, which made Wi-Fi a standard, easy-to-use feature in notebooks. The latest Intel laptop chips have WiMAX support baked in, making it cheap and simple for computer companies to add the capability. Lenovo is offering it as a $40 option in four models and plans several more before yearend. Toshiba is building WiMAX into its Satellite U405 laptops.
This doesn't assure success for WiMAX. Verizon and AT&T, as well as wireless carriers throughout Europe, are betting on a related but rival approach called Long Term Evolution (LTE). And XOHM must raise a lot of capital in a difficult environment to build out its network. On the plus side, XOHM has a two-year head start over LTE, since Verizon and AT&T don't plan to roll out 4G before 2010. XOHM has plenty of spectrum in hand to provide national coverage—far more, in fact, than the 4G bandwidth that AT&T and Verizon bought for nearly $20 billion at a government auction earlier this year.
However it plays out, consumers are likely to win. At launch, XOHM is providing faster service at lower cost than 3G networks, and it provides both mobile service and a rival to cable and phone companies for home Internet. That's enough of a reason for all of us to cheer for WiMAX.