Mobile WiMax may not make corporate connections

Sprint Nextel's Xohm network is live in one city and being rolled out in more. But WiMax technology has some enterprise limitations.

Can mobile WiMax work for business users who are looking for high-speed wireless Internet access?

Sprint Nextel Corp. and financial backers that include Intel Corp. and Google Inc. think it can. "We're definitely targeting businesses," said Barry West, president of Sprint's Xohm unit, which launched its namesake network in Baltimore in late September and plans to expand the WiMax offering to five more cities by early next year.

Even though the eventual nationwide rollout of Xohm is just starting, West said it's possible to make a compelling case for business uses of the network, particularly at small and midsize companies. He claimed that 70% of business activities are conducted within 50 miles of workers' homes — a statistic that should make a fast citywide network like Xohm look appealing, he said.

But Xohm and WiMax in general have some obvious limitations, according to wireless technology analysts. The biggest one, for now, is that the Sprint network is operational in only one city. Large companies likely wouldn't want to support laptop PCs and handheld devices on a network like Xohm unless it's running in numerous locales.

Another issue is how far Xohm can reach within cities, and whether the so-called 4G wireless technology can provide users with consistently good service. Even in Baltimore, about 30% of the 300 antennas that Sprint plans to install still weren't in place as of early October.

To help ensure full coverage for Xohm users, Sprint is working with hardware manufacturers to make available by year's end a laptop USB modem or aircard that can switch between the WiMax service and existing 3G wireless networks. Analysts such as Gartner Inc.'s Phillip Redman said it will be hard to know how truly mobile Xohm users can be until that gear is tested.

In addition, some analysts simply aren't convinced that there will be much demand for WiMax's high-speed mobile capabilities among business users. "There's a legitimate question whether this is mobile broadband for soccer moms," Redman said.

At least one company has started using the Xohm network in Baltimore. National Imaging Systems Inc., which sells Hewlett-Packard printers and printing supplies, has connected seven laptops and desktop PCs to the Sprint network via a single WiMax modem from ZyXel Communications Corp.

National Imaging has 17 employees and is based in a warehouse and office park in Glen Burnie, Md., about eight miles south of downtown Baltimore. Richard Levy, the company's CEO, said the office park isn't served by cable or DSL networks, so WiMax was a welcome alternative to the T1 line that National Imaging had been relying on for all of its voice, data and video transmissions.

"When I read about WiMax coming, I was on the phone right away ordering it," Levy said. The T1 service wasn't sufficient, especially when workers started making phone calls at the same time, he noted. So now National Imaging uses WiMax for data and video, leaving the T1 to handle only its voice calls.

Part of Levy's plan is to use Xohm along with Skype to support live videoconferencing between customers and the company's technicians on repair calls. "If you can show the customer what you want to do, it makes it a lot easier," he said.

Faster Is Better

Thus far, Levy said, the WiMax service is working satisfactorily, even when the downlink speed is just above the minimum level of 2Mbit/sec. that Sprint promises users. But, he added, if transmission speeds increase as the Baltimore network is built out, "that would be even better."

Wasif Malik, director of mobile solutions at the Ohio State University Medical Center, said that like many other IT managers, he's itching for a faster wireless network to meet the needs of bandwidth-hungry end users. Malik supports hundreds of medical residents and students who use iPhones or other handhelds and require voice-calling capabilities as well as the ability to access online medical references and other data on the Web.

"It's crucial to us to have a faster network," Malik said. "WiMax is interesting, and I'm interested in testing it." The medical center's network administrators would probably insist on having users convert to a Wi-Fi network inside the hospital grounds, he said. But when users are off the property, a high-speed technology like WiMax could be helpful.

WiMax, which is based on the IEEE 802.16e standard, looks to be "much more secure" than Wi-Fi is, said Jorge Mata, CIO for the Los Angeles Community College District. Mata also thinks WiMax could provide a larger area of coverage with less infrastructure than broadband wireless technologies require now. The only drawback, he said, is that Xohm's availability is so limited at the moment.

Sprint's Xohm unit is being folded into a joint venture with wireless ISP Clearwire Corp. to continue the network's deployment. The new company, which will be called Clearwire, is scheduled to be in place this quarter. Rollout plans call for Xohm to be launched in Chicago and Washington by year's end and in Boston, Philadelphia and Dallas-Fort Worth in 2009.

Inevitably, there will be questions about how solid the new Clearwire's financial footing is. But Sprint and Clearwire officials insist that users have nothing to worry about on that front, pointing to the $3.2 billion in funding that the joint venture is getting from Google, Intel and three cable companies. That will cover nearly half of the projected $7 billion cost of expanding the Xohm network to 100 cities by the end of 2010.

Another possible roadblock for WiMax, though, is competition with the rival Long Term Evolution wireless technology. LTE networks aren't expected to be deployed until 2011 at the earliest, but that technology is the upgrade path of choice for mobile network operators that support the dominant GSM standard.

In a recent white paper, Forrester Research Inc. said WiMax could eventually be used to augment existing broadband connections — for example, to extend Wi-Fi signals or even wired LANs to spots within a building or office campus that couldn't be reached otherwise. WiMax could also be more cost-efficient than other cellular technologies, because it can support more users within the range of a single antenna, Forrester said.

But for now, Xohm's lack of reach is a big turnoff for corporate users, Forrester analyst Lisa Pierce said via e-mail. "Until significantly greater service availability exists," she wrote, "WiMax won't be anything more than a trial [technology] or curiosity to enterprises."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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