Sprint to launch WiMax phone in 2010 that may run on Android

Company still playing in WiMax world after Clearwire joint venture

In early 2010, Sprint Nextel Corp. expects to launch a new smartphone that works over high-speed wireless WiMax, CDMA cellular and possibly Wi-Fi.

The actual form factor is "still being finalized," said Scott Lane, director of marketing and sales for Sprint's 4G unit, in an interview today.

Lane called the coming device a "trimode handset," meaning it would function in three wireless modes. Including WiMax and CDMA, the third mode will most likely be Wi-Fi, although that piece has not been confirmed. "It will more than likely have Wi-Fi," he added.

The WiMax portion could make the device the first stand-alone handset with WiMax capability. It will work over Clearwire Corp.'s Clear WiMax network, which Sprint helped create last year in an ambitious joint venture with Clearwire, Intel Corp., Google Inc. and three cable companies.

The WiMax handset also "could be based on Android" partly because Sprint has a "close relationship with Google," the main proponent of Android, Lane noted. Still, he said he would not commit to the operating system being based on Android because there are other operating systems that have the processing power to work with high-speed WiMax.

While Sprint spun off its WiMax initiative called Xohm in the joint venture with Clearwire, it has continued to run a 20-person unit devoted to WiMax product development and marketing strategy.

Regarding the Clear network being developed nationwide, Sprint will act as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator that uses the Clear infrastructure to transport data. But the WiMax products that Sprint sells, such as the coming handset, will be provisioned and supported by Sprint, Lane explained. In other words, customers would call Sprint for service calls.

In December, Sprint's 4G unit announced a dual-mode air card for laptops in the Baltimore market that runs on WiMax and Sprint's CDMA. While Sprint won't disclose the number of sales of the air card, Lane said they are "on target."

Sprint is also preparing to sell WiMax-related products in future Clear markets, which Lane said should reach 40 million to 50 million customers by the end of 2009.

In addition the current air card, which functions in both WiMax and CDMA networks, Sprint plans to offer an air card for laptops that functions only in WiMax. This card is mainly for users who don't expect to move outside of a WiMax coverage area. It will be less expensive than the current dual-mode air card, which sells for $149 and requires an $80 monthly subscription to operate on both networks.

Also by the end of 2009, Sprint plans to introduce two WiMax modems, one for home users that rivals DSL or cable modem speeds, and the other for business users with higher speeds close to that of a T1 line, Lane said.

Speeds in Baltimore for WiMax users have averaged between 2Mbit/sec. to 4Mbit/sec. downlink and 1Mbit/sec. to 2Mbit/sec. uplink, Lane said. That means users are getting speeds up to five times faster than CDMA, which makes it possible for businesses, such as real estate or medical graphics, to run video and other bandwidth intensive applications.

The recession has not caused a slowdown in WiMax-related sales, Lane said.

Analyst Jack Gold, of J.Gold Associates, said a WiMax-capable handset has been discussed by many companies, but Sprint could be the first to market. It would probably be manufactured for Sprint by Samsung or Motorola Inc., and would be based on previous Sprint phones. Either company develop an Android product, he said.

"I'm surprised a WiMax phone wasn't announced sooner," Gold said. "WiMax is Sprint's 4G future, and they have to have something to show using it."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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