Sprint admits losing WiMax users early on

Officials say problems with spotty WiMax coverage have now been largely addressed by Sprint and Clearwire

CHICAGO -- Sprint Nextel lost some potential customers due to spotty WiMax coverage in markets where it was first deployed, a Sprint official admitted Tuesday.

"We lost some customers in early deployments," said Matt Carter, president of 4G at Sprint in a brief interview at 4G World here. The first deployments occurred nearly two years ago in the Baltimore area, but Carter didn't say where the problems occurred.

Carter noted that in recent months, the coverage of WiMax within a given market has reached the "acceptable" range. There are a number of things that can cause spotty coverage, such as incomplete cell tower coverage of a city.

Teresa Kellett, a Sprint director of 4G who reports to Carter, said recent Sprint Evo customer surveys found that the average user has a favorable WiMax experience. "We've had two years of experience with WiMax now," she said.

Sprint advertises average download speeds of 3-6 Mbit/sec, and upload speeds that are capped with Clearwire at 1 Mbit/sec to prevent heavy peer-to-peer data sharing abuses.

During a luncheon panel discussion, Carter said that the spotty coverage developed partly from working with Clearwire, the WiMax infrastructure provider that is majority-owned by Sprint but operates as a separate entity.

Carter noted some control concerns over the Wimax deployment because Sprint is both an owner and customer of Clearwire. Recently, he said, there has been "better coordination and collaboration" with rollouts of WiMax technology in 55 U.S. cities, reaching 63 million people.

In some cases of uneven WiMax coverage, a WiMax USB dongle on a laptop or an HTC Evo 4G or Samsung Epic smartphone with embedded WiMax could let users jump to a 3G CDMA network when a 4G WiMax network is not available.

Concerns about spotty WiMax coverage seemed to increaser in June when contributors to the Android Forums and other sites noticed problems. Contributor AdamLeonard noted, for example, on June 6 on Android Forum that his 4G speeds on an Evo device were slower than what he had been used to with 3G networks.

On Monday, Sprint, Clearwire and Time Warner Cable announced plans to launch WiMax services in New York City later this year, each under its own brand.

Meanwhile, Sprint, Clearwire and Comcast yesterday announced plans to launch WiMax services in San Francisco later in the year, while Sprint and Clearwire announced plans to start Wimax service in Los Angeles by the end of 2010.

WiMax has seen a first-to-market advantage in the U.S. over LTE, a fast wireless technology backed by AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Verizon is expecting to bring 38 markets online with LTE by year's end, while AT&T will roll out LTE in 2011 in an unspecified number of cities.

Intel, a partner in Clearwire with Sprint and others, has been a traditional backer of WiMax technology, but an Intel official today said the presence of LTE technology and competition helps to promote more technology innovation.

"We don't want one [4G] scenario in the race," said the official, Yung Hahn, director of wireless strategy at Intel.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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