The five top mobile and wireless stories of 2008

WiMax, open access and prospects for an iPhone rival top the list

Ubiquitous, fast and cheap wireless access for mobile users has been predicted annually for more than 10 years. Will we finally realize that dream in 2008?

The quick answer is no, but 2008 will be a crucially important year for the mobility industry and its customers. We will start to see faster, more ubiquitous coverage and also fundamental changes in how we obtain wireless access and content.

In other words, after 15 years of dizzying growth, the wireless industry will start to change fundamentally in 2008, experts agree. Here are the five biggest mobile and wireless stories that will emerge in the next year -- and a couple of much-discussed stories that won't be as big as many expect.

A look back

First, let's look back at some of the predictions made here last year.

We hit it spot-on with our top prediction: a glut of competent smart phones costing US$200 or less. Previously, smart phones had been limited mostly to executives and those with fat wallets. In the last year, every phone vendor and cellular operator started offering cheap smart phones.

"Within a couple of years, everyone who wants a smart phone will have one," said Derek Kerton, principal of The Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm.

A related prediction is also coming true: the democratization of mobile e-mail. With cheap smart phones, e-mail is now readily available to all mobile users, not just executives with BlackBerries.

Another prediction, the ability to use a single phone at home and while mobile, started in earnest during 2007. T-Mobile is selling its Hotspot@home service that enables a single phone to switch seamlessly between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. And Sprint Nextel started offering femtocells to customers in two markets, which enable fail-proof cellular access throughout the home.

We didn't hit them all out of the park a year ago. For instance, we predicted municipal Wi-Fi would expand rapidly in 2007. But municipalities all across the country pulled back their Wi-Fi projects and EarthLink, which at one point had staked its future on muni Wi-Fi, is now easing out of the business.

Looking ahead to 2008

Here are predictions of the top mobile and wireless stories of 2008. All the experts interviewed agreed that this list starts with Sprint Nextel and its WiMax effort.

Top story: Will Sprint's WiMax effort succeed?

Sprint is about to soft-launch its Xohm WiMax service in the Chicago and Baltimore-Washington markets and said it will make the service available in many more markets as 2008 unfolds. The company said Xohm will be faster and cheaper than 3G.

"It's the do or die year for WiMax," Kerton said. "Sprint won't recoup their investment in 2008, but we'll start to see if the technology works and if their business plan will work."

Another issue, of course, is whether customers will embrace the technology.

"Marketing and pricing will be the two key gotchas," said Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates . "The big story will be whether Sprint can market its way out of a brown paper bag."

Not everybody believes that WiMax will meet user expectations.

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