Sprint sees 'open' model for WiMax

Sprint Nextel Corp. wants its WiMax wireless service to look more like home broadband and less like cellular, but it may take a while to get there.

The carrier plans to start rolling out WiMax late this year and reach 100 million U.S. residents by the end of 2008. The standards-based technology is designed to offer megabits per second of throughput to a device over a range of several miles (1 mile = 1.6 kilometers). Subscribers should be able to use it on many different kinds of devices, including notebooks, handhelds and gaming devices.

Sprint's WiMax plans are closely watched because it is the first major carrier to commit to a large national rollout of mobile WiMax.

Sprint announced last August it had chosen WiMax for its 4G technology to supplement 3G (third generation) cellular service. The technology was chosen to meet the needs of the service, which will have a business model different from cellular's, said Atish Gude, senior vice president of mobile broadband operations at Sprint, at the Wireless Communications Association Symposium in San Jose, California. Whereas 3G involves taking cell phones and putting more data on them, 4G is an Internet data service from the beginning, Gude said.

Cellular services tend to use a "walled garden" where users can only access certain services provided by the mobile operator. With its 4G service, Sprint is aiming for an "open" model in which subscribers can go anywhere on the Internet, Gude said. But the carrier hasn't yet decided whether to start out the service open or gradually open it up. Also, carrier-specific offerings would make more sense on some hardware platforms, such as gaming devices without keyboards, Gude said.

Sprint hopes to offer handhelds that offer its current 3G services and add WiMax as a connectivity option that's faster and more economical, Gude said. Meanwhile, 3G will cover a much larger part of the country than WiMax, he said.

Asked about VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol), a potential competitor to Sprint's cellular voice services, Gude said he expects there will be ways to use it on evolving multimedia devices. But Sprint doesn't plan to offer a dedicated VOIP service, he said.

WiMax will also be priced differently from 3G, though Sprint hasn't yet worked out exactly how. Gude envisioned three tiers of service, including so-called "unlimited" services, though those would have an ultimate monthly limit just as 3G data services do today. One subscription could cover multiple devices, so a family could have just one account and add and remove devices, managing their own account. The cost would go up with each added device, he said.

Sprint is still examining pricing, but Gude said broadband Internet access is generally priced at US$35 to $40 per month and Sprint believes mobility could carry a premium of $10 to $15.

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