Sprint names new WiMax markets, soldiers on in 4G battle

Carrier faces tough battle ahead against AT&T, Verizon's planned use of rival LTE

LAS VEGAS -- Sprint Nextel said today it will have 120 million Americans on fast wireless WiMax by year's end, including residents in seven newly announced markets, Los Angeles and Miami among them.

Paired with today's expected announcement here at the CTIA Wireless show of its first WiMax-capable smartphone, the HTC Supersonic, Sprint is gearing up for the battle of its very existence, as AT&T and Verizon Wireless prepare to launch faster networks using rival LTE technology late this year and into 2011. Verizon has already said it expects to have LTE serving 100 million people in 25 to 30 cities by year's end.

Sprint's prospects for growth with WiMax are sobering, however, even with a hot new WiMax phone and a variety of other 3G-capable smartphones. To start, analysts note that AT&T and Verizon are well ahead of Sprint in subscribers, each with more than 80 million, compared to Sprint's 48 million.

Even more daunting is information shared by the GSM Association just last week. The group, which represents LTE providers, including AT&T and Verizon, cited Infonetics forecasts that dim Sprint's chances with WiMax in the U.S. The forecast predicts that in 2014, LTE will by used on 41% of all wireless devices, with WiMax on only 3% of devices, despite WiMax's time-to-market advantage. The remaining shares will go to HSPA, with 29%, and EV-DO, with 27%, Infonetics said.

Given that outlook, Sprint faces challenges in succeeding with WiMax. It's possible that Sprint officials, including CEO Dan Hesse, may address that issue at CTIA this week.

Sprint's news of bringing WiMax to 120 million Americans seems geared in particular toward Verizon's repeated statements that it will reach 100 million Americans in 25 to 30 cities with LTE by the end of 2010. Perhaps Sprint will have one solid edge in the faster wireless 4G race with the Supersonic, because Verizon is stating it expects to have an LTE-capable smartphone by mid-2011, easily a year after Sprint's first 4G phone.

Sprint today also said that its WiMax network, which is over a network being built by Clearwire, reaches 27 markets. The carrier stated that "unlike 'concepts' and 'lab tests' from other wireless companies, Sprint is the first national wireless carrier to actually test, launch and market 4G technology."

Sprint noted that it has already released its Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, as well as WiMax-capable data cards for laptops, and that it supports WiMax-embedded laptops.

In addition to Los Angeles and Miami, the other five cities Sprint said will see WiMax in 2010 are Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and St. Louis. Earlier this year, Sprint said it would launch WiMax in Boston, Denver, Kansas City, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco and Washington this year.

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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