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WiMAX Goes Live; Now Comes the Hard Part

Posted: 10 Oct 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:WiMAX? Lenovo? Toshiba? Nokia? blog?

By Cliff Edwards
The Tech Beat

It's official: the fledging WiMAX broadband network is finally getting rolling, with companies such as Lenovo, Toshiba and Nokia announcing a number of products (or extensions of previous products) that will take advantage of the competitor to cellular and home data-delivery markets.

The formal launch for Xohm, the service that is being offered by a merger of Sprint's WiMAX assets and Craig McCaw's Clearwire, is good news following months of delay. The network will expand throughout Baltimore and into Chicago and Washington, D.C. Other cities, including Dallas-Ft. Worth, Boston and Philadelphia, reportedly are running in test mode and should be accessible for those with a Xohm account and equipmentmainly laptops and data cards. (Oddly, one of the original WiMAX backers, Samsung, is not expected to offer support in its laptops until next year.)

Intel and other backers now have a lot of hard work to do to convince consumers to sign up. Sure, Xohm offers extremely competitive pricing when compared to other broadband service offerings. Users can pay by the day or month and use two different devices under one planall without a contract. But coverage at first will be spotty. There also are some reports from early adopters that using early versions of WiMAX while truly on the go has been problematic.

In the meantime, AT&T, Verizon and cable companies who have not invested in WiMAX might take the threat to heart and begin dropping prices on some levels of service. Good news for consumers; bad news for those who have invested billions in the technology.

WiMAX backers will tell you it's all going according to planand they're partially right. Many developing countries are adopting or seriously considering the technology. The global economic meltdown also could prompt both consumers and governments to turn to the technology, which is relatively cheap to implement and use.

But to be truly successful, WiMAX will have to be baked into a number of consumer electronic devices, including digital cameras and other products where Wi-Fi already has a big place. So far, no such devices have been announced. Lining up a slew of announcements for the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress early next year may be crucial to building buzz for the service.

The inevitable delays that come with rolling out any new technology, and the time it will take to work out the kinks also give the competing Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology an opening to catch up and overtake WiMAX.

Of course, the same weak economic outlook may force AT&T and Verizon to try to wring more life out of their current 3G networks. But you can bet that if early field testing of LTE goes well and WiMAX shows even the tiniest sign it is stealing customers for Sprint and Clearwire, LTE will become a serious competitor in short order for the fourth-generation cellular crown

- Cliff Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau, where he covers Intel, the semiconductor industry, handheld- and consumer-electronics companies.

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