The future of WiMax-based 4G wireless in the U.S. depends on many factors, including network buildout, but the new Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot announced Wednesday by Sprint clearly advances the cause of the emerging technology.
Sprint said the new wireless router device, manufactured by Sierra Wireless, will give wireless access via Wi-Fi to five devices, and then connect to them to the wide area WiMax network, where available, at average advertised speeds of 3 to 6 Mbit/sec. That speed is roughly 10 times faster than Sprint's 3G speeds, offering significant advantages for intense bandwidth applications such as video and games.
Sprint unveiled the device during an elaborate event yesterday at the 2010 International CES show here.
The device is apparently a key part of Sprint's overall WiMax strategy, considering that the launch event was hosted by comedian Frank Caliendo and concluded with food prepared in person by chef Mario Batali. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even made a quick appearance, endorsing the Overdrive as something his three sons will be able to use for online gaming. His sons will be able to take the square, 4.5 ounce and black Overdrive device from their bedrooms to the car without interrupting play, he said.
Overdrive goes on sale Jan. 10 at some Sprint and Best Buy stores for $100 after a $50 rebate, plus a two-year contract that runs $60 a month. For that monthly cost, customers will get unlimited 4G downloads. Where 4G is not available, downloads will be limited to 5GB of data per month on 3G networks.
Analysts note that the success of Overdrive depends not on the device's features, but how widely 4G technology is available.
WiMax is available through Sprint in 27 U.S. markets, including Chicago and Atlanta, making it available to 30 million people, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said. He said he expects WiMax to be available to 120 million people within a year, though only a few additional cities have been announced, including Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington and Houston.
"2010 is the year of Sprint 4G," Hesse said, noting that there are 400 million Wi-Fi devices runnng today, a number that's expected to reach 1 billion in 2012.
Analysts who attended the event were impressed by Overdrive, within some limits.
"Sprint is advancing the viability of WiMax with Overdrive, but ultimately this capability is limited to a small portion of the population," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "In a sense, Overdrive is not all that different from MiFi," which is a wireless router device that links 3G networks with Wi-Fi devices.
However, Maribel Lopez, principal analyst at Lopez Research in San Francisco, found the Overdrive important, especially for advancing the concept of wireless mobility. Today, a laptop user can purchase a broadband modem for $60 a month, which is restricted to that laptop, but Overdrive will give mobility to five devices for the same monthly cost, she noted. Overdrive will improve business and medical applications, she predicted.
Danny Bowman, president of Sprint's integrated solutions group, said a business such as construction company could use Overdrive on a job site, instantly establishing a connection for five devices instead of waiting months for installation of a T1 line.
The range of devices that can use WiMax will be broad, from machine-to-machine devices to laptops and gaming stations. Sometime later this year, Bowman said, Sprint will also introduce a WiMax smartphone built by a major manufacturer, Bowman said. "Stay tuned," he said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smart phones and other handhelds and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter @matthamblen, send e-mail at email@example.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .