After delaying the release of its commercial WiMax service in April, Sprint Nextel in May announced a $14.55 billion joint venture with wireless technology provider Clearwire to build the first nationwide mobile WiMax network.
It’s been a long time coming for WiMax -- the shorthand for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, a wireless connectivity standard that provides high-speed data and telecommunications services. (Mobile WiMax is a later generation of the original, which is now known as "fixed WiMax.") This time around, Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks have joined in, with $3.2 billion. Philip Solis, principal analyst of mobile broadband at ABI Research, says that this was the only way Sprint and Washington-based Clearwire could get the necessary capital. "The positive thing is that this network is moving forward," he says.
Set to launch in late 2008, the network plans to cover between 10 million and 15 million people by year’s end -- expanding to as many as 140 million people by the end of 2010. But with more than 258 million mobile-phone users in the United States, some analysts have deemed the project overvalued, especially when working with "unproven technology."
Solis says mobile WiMax will transform the way consumers interact with technology, from global Internet devices to consumer electronics. The excitement, though, seems to be contained. "It’s kind of odd," Solis says. "People today aren’t saying ‘I want my portable media player and game devices to be connected.’" But Solis anticipates ready adoption, especially once consumers see the breadth of capabilities available on mobile WiMax, a system that provides long-range connectivity across several kilometers, rather than the few hundred meters that people have come to expect from short-range Wi-Fi.
"Anyone in the field…should be nearly as effective [using] high-bandwidth sorts of networked applications" as they would be working at their desks, says Glenn Fleishman, a Seattle-based technology journalist. Salespeople will be equipped to make real-time decisions. Data can also be loaded into the CRM system immediately at the point of contact, minimizing the burden. Mobile access is one reason SAP and Research In Motion (RIM) have partnered to provide SAP CRM natively integrated with RIM’s BlackBerry device. (See "SAP Looks to ‘Change the Game,’ " for more on the news.) The future of mobile WiMax will likely lead to more such ventures, with even more robust functionality. "Sure, modern corporate networks can run 100 to 1000 Mbps," Fleishman adds, "but most applications just need megabytes rapidly, not gigabytes."
Marketers are sure to salivate. Google’s $500 million stake is motivated by the prospect of more advertising. Google will offer search to the network’s users and aid in the development of additional services and applications, writes Larry Alder, a Google product manager, on the company blog. With Google in the deal, "other search engines will definitely not have the home-court advantage," Fleishman says, adding that Google Ads will be fine-tuned using consumers’ local coordinates.
Consumers needn’t be too worried about security: Sprint and Clearwire have tailored their engineering to provide guards even better than those in today’s cellular data systems, Fleishman says. Current connections, he adds, are "difficult if not impossible to sniff and decipher," often requiring the sophisticated equipment of industrial espionage or government-grade gear.