WiMAX May Be Coming to Chicago This Summer

When was the last time you used a pay phone? For many, it’s probably been at least a few years. The downfall of the pay phone is key to Don Stroberg’s vision of how a new wireless broadband technology – called WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) – will be adopted by the consuming public.


“In 1992, when mobile voice was introduced, everybody said the same thing: I’ve got services at home; I’ve got services in the office; I can get to a pay phone when I need one,” he recalled.


Stroberg, vice president of sales for Sprint Nextel’s Xohm Business Unit, anticipates Americans responding in the same way to the company’s next-generation Internet service. But in the end, he sees consumers adopting Sprint’s technology in the same way they abandoned pay phones and landlines for cell phones. “It’s going to be the same introduction, I think,” he said. “You’re going to see customer adoption of this really explode over the next five years.”


The Evolution


Early in 2007, Sprint announced a new wireless broadband network that it claimed would surpass the capabilities of Wi-Fi in applications and mobility. Then, at the end of the year, Sprint engaged in a “soft launch” of its WiMAX network, dubbed Xohm, rolling out Internet service to its employees in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington. In this phase, Sprint is testing the network and working out any kinks before it launches wireless Internet service to consumers in Chicago by this summer.


This phase, which Sprint is calling the “micro phase” will begin with modems and aircards designed to work with Xohm, but at later dates, the company plans to incorporate many other nontraditional electronic devices onto the network, including digital cameras, PDAs and media players. “You’re going to start to see a significant number of what we would call nontraditional wireless devices get embedded with WiMAX and show up this year and probably explode in ‘09 and ‘10,” Stroberg explained.


“Over the next nine to 12 months, [we’ll] get the entire metropolitan area,” Stroberg said. To provide an illustration for the planned network progression, he said, “We’re looking at going from advertising in the [Chicago] Reader to advertising in the Chicago Tribune. [Finally], we’re going to have all the major cities covered – think of that as advertising in USA Today and ‘SportsCenter.’”


So What?


On the surface, it appears WiMAX is the answer to all fast-paced multimedia needs. Users will be able to watch cable TV, stream movies, download music, share photos, play games, e-mail and talk to friends on many different embedded electronic devices from anywhere. The speed and capacity of the network will support this wide range of applications. Sprint also says the service and devices will cost less. In fact, Stroberg said there is a 10 times cost-to-performance benefit over Wi-Fi, and “the prices of [the new] devices are about one-third of what you pay for similar devices [now].”


Another strong suit of the technology is the vast area covered. Frank Ohrtman, president of consultancy WMX Systems LLC, gave an illustration of WiMAX’s coverage capabilities: “San Francisco’s model for municipal Wi-Fi called for 37,000 Wi-Fi access points, which is difficult to maintain. [With WiMAX], we can have one access point to cover 40 square miles.” Or as Sprint puts it, WiMAX is “a hotspot the size of a city.”


Challenges


While the range of capabilities of the technology sounds exciting, some worry about the technological challenges the devices will encounter.


Dr. Chi Zhou, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has done her own research on WiMAX networks. She believes the initial costs of deploying the technology will be prohibitive. “When you try to deploy WiMAX, you have to buy and install new equipment,” she said. “The initial cost will be high.”


Additionally, she sees problems with upgrading current handheld devices to be able to support the types of activities Sprint wants to make available on its WiMAX network. “The handheld device is limited in size and also is powered by battery,” she said. “So we have a limited battery life, and then if we actually use it for video play [or gaming], we need to have big memory size to store all the possible video files – that is a huge challenge.” She said the increased battery and memory power will be difficult to incorporate in our increasingly small handheld devices.


Others, meanwhile, have concerns about WiMAX’s potential for adoption among consumers.


Floyd Alcorn is senior manager at Cognizant Technology Solutions, and provides consulting for wireless services.


“[With] a combination of the network, the device and some application, there’s going to need to be some ‘wow factor’ that happens with WiMAX,” Alcorn said. “[Cognizant is] of the opinion that if it is more of the same of what we have today, it may struggle to get to a point where people make an economic decision to buy additional service.”


Sprint’s Stroberg agreeds with Alcorn: “We don’t have the exact combination yet, [but] it’s not just incumbent on [Sprint to come up with the ‘wow factor’].” The company has been encouraging other companies to take part in building WiMAX and the embedded devices it would support through its partnerships. Recognizing the challenges, “we’re coming anyways,” said Stroberg.

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