Just as 3G or third generation cellular broadband starts to gain a foothold with EV-DO and HSDPA from the major cellular carriers, Sprint Nextel ups the ante with the first 4G or fourth generation wireless broadband network to deploy in the U.S. Not surprisingly, WiMAX is at the core of it.
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A convergence of factors make this the time for nationwide WiMAX broadband and Sprint the company to do it. First is the fact that WiMAX is maturing. There have been a number of trial deployments, a steady solidification of the standards, and progress toward certification of equipment and scaling up of manufacturing. It's been obvious for some time that WiMAX was going to be a huge worldwide wireless standard. The only question was whether the tipping point would be 2006, 2007, 2008 or beyond. Now it looks like mid-2006 is the big launch, with service to begin before the end of next year.
Sprint is committing to deploy the IEEE802.16e-2005 Mobile WiMAX standard. This standard offers the most flexibility, in that it can be used for both fixed point to point and mobile data transfers.
When you think of Sprint and Nextel, it's likely in the context of cell phone service providers. Their obvious application for WiMAX is to speed up existing services like SprintTV video on demand, music downloads, and similar 3G entertainment content. In fact, Sprint has said it plans to deploy its 4G WiMAX network along side of its current 3G EV-DO network. Motorola and Samsung will be producing multimode wireless devices that will operate on both networks. Just like the current 3G devices gracefully degrade from high speed EV-DO to much lower speed 1xRTT when they move beyond EV-DO coverage, the new networks will fall back from WiMAX to EV-DO outside of the metropolitan areas where WiMAX will be deployed.
But there's much more to be gained from WiMAX than just goosed up video downloads. WiMAX is also useful for delivering broadband Internet service to both laptop and desktop computers. In fact, WiMAX was designed as a wireless MAN or Metropolitan Area Network with a reach of up to 31 miles and shared bandwidth up to 70 Mbps. In actuality, Sprint is expected to deliver 2 to 4 Mbps bandwidths to fixed and mobile clients. That compares to typically 400 to 700 Kbps for EV-DO and 60 to 80 Kbps for 1xRTT. An order of magnitude bandwidth improvement over 3G makes WiMAX 4G look pretty attractive as a replacement for DSL and Cable broadband services. Intel has said it will deliver next generation WiMAX solutions for its Centrino Mobile Technology devices. That sounds a lot like built-in WiMAX along side built-in Wi-Fi for at least laptop computers. Don't be surprised to see wireless access points or routers that have a WiMAX transceiver for the WAN or wide area network and Wi-Fi for the LAN or local area network.
Sprint and Nextel also stand to gain by using WiMAX technology to backhaul their cellular phone traffic. Right now many, if not most, cell towers are fed by T1 landlines at 1.5 Mbps. If you are going to have WiMAX on the tower for customer broadband service, why not use some of that capability to replace copper lines with long range radio carriers? It just makes sense as a system upgrade and likely cost savings.
Another part of the "why Sprint?" answer is that Sprint and Nextel are under the gun to do something worthwhile with their hoard of 2.5 GHz band licenses or risk losing them to someone else. Both Sprint and Nextel are major owners of licenses in that former MMDS (Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service) band. Combined, they cover over 85 percent of the households in the top 100 U.S. markets. Not only is this good spectrum gone fallow, but Sprint Nextel is bound by a commitment to build a 2.5 GHz network that reaches at least 30 million people by the end of the decade. That commitment is part of the agreement with the FCC that allowed Sprint and Nextel to merge their assets. Sprint Nextel is actually planning to have their new WiMAX network serve up to 100 million people by the end of 2008.
Sprint Nextel has a real wireless gold mine in the making. The 2.5 GHz band is the juiciest chunk of spectrum for WiMAX transmissions. Those frequencies can penetrate buildings far better than the 3.5 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands also planned for WiMAX. That offers the chance to replace wireline broadband services and make indoor and in-vehicle roaming practical. In time, you may even see Wi-Fi hotspots drying up and going the way of dial-up Internet service.
A nationwide WiMAX network will likely spawn many new business and consumer mobile services that need the expanded bandwidth. Full motion video conferencing, streaming audio and video, large database applications, on-the-go simulations and presentations are just a few that come quickly to mind. Even the mere threat of WiMAX may be just the impetus that's needed to accelerate the deployment of universal fiber to the premises and all the new applications that move will spawn.
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John Shepler has been a published writer for over 30 years. With a background in electronics engineering technology, he has worked in a variety of industries including radio broadcast, aerospace and manufacturing. Involved in telecommunications since 1998, he combines his interests in writing and technology with T1Rex.com and T1 Rex's Business Telecom Explainer.
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