Sprint's 4G Xohm WiMax: How fast is it?

In our hands-on tests, the new Xohm network was fast and smooth -- but for now, you have to be in Baltimore.

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Oddly enough, the missing link is phones. None of Xohm's service plans or device info includes any traditional handsets or smartphones, a key gap in the company's plans.

Xohm's West counters, "For us, voice is just another app. We encourage people to use voice over IP on Xohm." In other words, there will be Xohm phones for sale, but no specific models or dates have been mentioned.

As good as Xohm is, the majority of Sprint's network still uses older and slower EV-DO technology, which leaves a critical gap because there are no dual-network devices available. A dual-network connection card would allow a user in Seattle to tap into the older network but get full speed in Baltimore. West says to expect the first dual-network devices later this year.

The big question is how expensive they will be to use. They will require access to both the old and the new networks, so I expect it to cost more than a single subscription. On the other hand, you won't be able to access two networks at once, which should keep the price of the service plans reasonable.

Shaking up wireless data service

Xohm has rewritten the business model for mobile data by doing away with the subsidies that carriers use to lower the price of phones and data cards to entice new customers.

Over the life of a typical two-year contract, a service's monthly bills are about $10 to $15 higher when you get a discounted device upfront. It's no wonder you can get a free phone or data card when you factor in the extra $240 to $360 the carrier will rake in over time.

By contrast, Xohm users won't need any long-term contract and will get lower prices on monthly service. "This brings simplicity to pricing," says West.

Xohm's typical all-you-can download plan goes for $30 a month, though in 2009 it'll go up to $45 per month. Even at the higher price, this is $15 a month less than the typical monthly service charge by AT&T, Sprint and Verizon for similar service.

The company also offers an innovative $10 single-day plan that provides 24 hours of unlimited network access. It's perfect for occasional travelers who need to stay online but don't need coverage every day.

The bottom line

All told, Xohm will likely be a godsend for mobile professionals who have to stay connected while they travel. When you can get a good connection, Xohm is on par with wired broadband or a Starbucks Wi-Fi connection. When you're not as lucky, it's still better and cheaper to use than the current 3G networks. It's exhilarating and liberating to watch videos, listen to Internet radio, read e-mail, use a VoIP phone and move files on a remote server -- all while connected through thin air.

But Xohm will succeed only if the company quickly adds more cities to its coverage map. For those of us who aren't in a WiMax city, it's just another case of hurry up and wait.

Brian Nadel, former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine, is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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