Sprint asserts that Xohm WiMax push is on track

Seeking Xohm investors but will stay principal owner

LAS VEGAS -- Sprint Nextel Corp. and its partners in the ambitious WiMax Xohm initiative insisted that the project for faster wireless networking is on track as planned.

"We are exactly where we said we'd be," said Barry West, president of Sprint's Xohm business unit, in comments to reporters and analysts at the International Consumer Electronics Show. He was joined by top WiMax executives for the other principal players in the venture, including Intel Corp., Motorola Inc., Nokia North America, Samsung Telecommunications America and Nokia Siemens Networks.

Xohm has begun a soft launch of WiMax with its employees in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington. Commercial WiMax service is expected to begin in April in some U.S. cities, West said, although he did not specify which ones. Xohm also has identified and secured permits at 2,500 sites, where crews will soon begin installing WiMax access points, he said in a brief interview.

2008 International CES

View more stories from 2008 International CES Service for Xohm could cost $30 to $60 per month for each device, such as a cell phone or laptop, West told Computerworld. Users will probably be charged separately for a second device, West said, adding that at some point those charges will level off for multiple devices; he did not indicate how many devices that would be, however. "We will reach a point where if you have enough devices, we're not going to charge any more," he said.

The cost per month is meant to compete with wired Internet services such as DSL, West said. When it was noted that some DSL services can cost $20 per month, West remarked, "That's not very good service."

West also said that Sprint is talking to potential investment partners to help finance the Xohm initiative, but he insisted that "Sprint will still be the major owner [of Xohm] in any scenario" where Xohm would sell WiMax bandwidth wholesale. He added that there is a "strong possibility" that one or more investors will be named in February or March.

Concerns about the Xohm initiative and its financial status were raised late last year when Sprint CEO Gary Forsee resigned. Some financial analysts said that Sprint should spin off the Xohm unit and refocus on its core networking business, but Sprint's internal financial executives urged West to find additional investors, West said. Forsee had put the ultimate cost of building the network at $1 billion.

Despite concerns about Sprint's role in Xohm, West and others on the panel said that many networking and device vendors, as well as service providers globally, are interested in WiMax technology and its success. "This is beyond Sprint already. ... This is real, hardened technology ... with devices," West said.

Fred Wright, senior vice president of cellular and WiMax at Motorola, agreed. "We're out to globalize this technology, and the Xohm umbrella is important to us to launch into the mobile mainstream," he said. Motorola has 17 WiMax-related contracts in 16 countries.

Herald Braun, head of convergence operators business for Nokia Siemens Networks, also took up the refrain that WiMax is "beyond Sprint," but he noted that "Sprint had the guts to say that somebody has to build it."

Intel's Sriram Viswanathan, general manager of Intel Capital and its WiMax program office, added that "WiMax is bigger than Sprint and bigger than the U.S., and for each one of us [partners] ... there's an opportunity for us to leapfrog current broadband wireless data access."

Separately, an Intel spokesman said the company is gearing up to release in midyear a combination Wi-Fi/WiMax module code-named Echo Peak. It is a single internal laptop card that delivers WiMax and Wi-Fi together, according to Julie Coppernoll, a spokeswoman for Intel's WiMax program. At this point, many Intel Centrino-based laptops have Wi-Fi inside them. When the combination module hits the market, users will have a machine that can take advantage of either one.

"It'll be a huge, significant step for WiMax," said Coppernoll in a separate interview.

Nokia, meanwhile, plans to provide WiMax devices "in coordination with the Xohm service," said Chris Staley, vice president of sales for Nokia North America, but he did not elaborate.

Hwan Chung, senior vice president for 4G wireless at Samsung Telecommunications America, said that Samsung will deliver on its commitment to Xohm in the second quarter and is testing WiMax infrastructure and device interoperability. Among the products Samsung is developing are USB dongles with dual-mode (WiMax/Wi-Fi) capability, and laptop cards. He said that in the second half of the year, the company will offer an ultramobile PC that will be WiMax-enabled.

Chung also noted that WiMax service from a South Korean telecommunications provider is available now to 140,000 subscribers. "Based on the experience in Korea, I strongly believe Xohm WiMax will be a great success from the beginning," Chung said.

At the trade show, Intel, Motorola and Clearwire Corp. demonstrated WiMax capabilities in a Chevrolet Suburban that was driven around the streets of Las Vegas. The car was equipped with an Intel Core 2-based entertainment system built into the dashboard that included Web access, music, video, streaming Internet TV, location-based services and GPS connected by WiMax.

Sharon Gaudin of Computerworld contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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