CES - Sprint asserts that Xohm WiMax push is on track

Commercial WiMax service expected to begin in April in some US cities

Sprint Nextel and its partners in the ambitious WiMax Xohm initiative insisted that the project for faster wireless networking is on track as planned.

"We are exactly where we said we'd be," said Barry West, president of Sprint's Xohm business unit in comments to reporters and analysts at the CES trade show. He was joined by top WiMax executives for the other principal players in the venture, including Intel, Motorola, Nokia North America, Samsung Telecommunications America and Nokia Siemens Networks.

Xohm has begun a soft launch of WiMax with its employees in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington. Commercial WiMax service is expected to begin in April in some US cities, West said, although he did not specify which cities. Xohm also has identified and secured permits at 2,500 sites where crews will soon begin installing WiMax access points, he said in a brief interview.

Service for Xohm could cost US$30 to $60 per month for each device, such as a mobile phone or laptop, West told Computerworld. Users will probably be charged separately for a second device, West said, but at some point those charges will level off for multiple devices, but he did not indicate how many devices that would be. "We will reach a point, where if you have enough devices, we're not going to charge any more," he said.

The cost per month is meant to compete with wired Internet services, such as DSL, West said. When it was noted that some DSL can cost US$20 per month, West said, "that's not very good service."

West also said Sprint is talking to potential investment partners to help finance the Xohm initiative, but insisted that "Sprint will still be the major owner [of Xohm] in any scenario," where Xohm would sell WiMax bandwidth wholesale. He added there is a "strong possibility" that one or more investors will be named in February or March.

Concerns about the start-up of Xohm and its financial status were raised late last year when Sprint CEO Gary Foresee resigned. Some financial analysts said Sprint should spin off Xohm and re-focus on its core networking business but Sprint's internal financial executives urged West and Xohm to find additional Xohm investors, West said. Foresee had put the ultimate cost of building the network at US$1 billion.

Despite concerns about Sprint's role in Xohm, West and others the panel said many networking and device vendors, as well as service providers globally, are interested in WiMax technology and its success. "This is beyond Sprint already, ... this is real, hardened technology...with devices," West said.

Fred Wright, senior vice president of cellular and WiMax at Motorola, agreed. "We're out to globalize this technology and the Xohm umbrella is important to us to launch into the mobile mainstream," he said. Motorola has 17 WiMax-related contracts in 16 countries.

Herald Braun, head of convergence operators business for Nokia Siemens Networks, also took up the refrain that WiMax is "beyond Sprint," but he noted that "Sprint had the guts to say that somebody has to build it."

Intel's Sriram Viswanathan, general manager of Intel's Capital and WiMax program, added that "WiMax is bigger than Sprint and bigger than the US, and for each one of us [partners]... There's an opportunity for us to leapfrog current broadband wireless data access."

Separately, an Intel spokesman said the company is gearing up to release in mid-year a combination Wi-Fi/WiMax module codenamed Echo Peak. It is a single internal laptop card that delivers WiMax and Wi-Fi together, according to Julie Coppernoll, a spokeswoman for Intel's WiMax program. At this point, many Intel Centrino-based laptops have Wi-Fi inside them. When the combination module hits the market, users will have a machine that can take advantage of either one.

"It'll be a huge, significant step for WiMax," said Coppernoll in a separate interview.

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