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As Sprint bets big on WiMax over LTE, timing may be everything

Sprint's WiMax should beat competitors to market, LTE's shadow looms large with its broader provider base. Experts wonder whether WiMax can save the company.

Sprint Nextel has bet big that getting WiMax to market a year or two before its competitors can launch their own high-speed wireless networks will help save the company. Sprint has invested heavily in WiMax, the wireless data protocol promising ubiquitous broadband access, while its competitors – Verizon and AT&T – have invested in LTE (Long Term Evolution). The first LTE launch is still more than a year away, giving Sprint a head start. But every passing day without a launch pushes Sprint's WiMax closer to irrelevance.

"If you're looking at Sprint, it's certainly difficult to remain optimistic," said Daryl Schooler, a senior analyst with In-Stat. "You have one stumbling block after another."

From the start, WiMax looked like a sure win. Service trials have kicked off around the world, and a demonstration last September in Chicago set the media and gadget fans alike buzzing about a new era of wireless connectivity. The competitors' technology would not come for years.

Sprint also had lined up big-name partners to support the launch: Motorola, Intel and Google all invested money and development efforts early on.

Shortly after the widely praised Chicago soft launch, however, things took a wrong term, and the once insurmountable lead WiMax had on its competitors is dwindling even as Sprint needs the technology more than ever.

"I see the effort going on on Sprint's part , but you don't have the results yet," Schooler said. Other prognoses were equally hard on the company.

"There is no question that as Sprint has delayed its plans to roll out, it has somewhat delayed the larger WiMax ecosystem around the world," said Danny Locklear, director of wireless product marketing for Nortel. "Most of the existing wireless carriers, Sprint being unique, are moving along an LTE path."

Many of the company's woes go back to Nextel, the carrier acquisition that never quite fit. Schooler said the massive expenses involved in that deal have left investors skittish, particularly when it comes to investing major capital in a new national wireless network.

Then there have been the hurdles with the launch itself, such as Sprint's on-and-off relationship with Clearwire, one of the biggest U.S. proponents of the technology. The companies' roaming agreement was abruptly cancelled last year, although the relationships were recently renewed in a tight partnership whereby Clearwire is now 51% owned by Sprint.

Unexpected technical challenges have also cropped up, such as difficulty in finding high-capacity backhaul to carry the data from cell sites.

Currently, Sprint is only stating that WiMax will begin to go commercially live by the end of the year, while Verizon is aiming for a rollout in 2009-2010 of its own LTE service. AT&T's own 4G deployment, also based on LTE, isn't expected until 2012.

That gap might be crucial to Sprint's WiMax success. Right now, while a few hardware vendors have committed one way or the other, most are on the fence, developing hardware for both technologies.

This is possible, according to Andre Mechaly, vice president of mobile access for Alcatel-Lucent, because the two technologies share many of the same basic building blocks.

"We are not trying to impose a technology," Mechaly said. "The final decision is coming from the market, and with both technologies, we can address the final market."

He said determining whether to go with WiMax or LTE is largely about timing and legacy: WiMax is available today, while LTE boasts better backward capability for established carriers and a smoother upgrade path.

Most of the major WiMax sales were primarily to emerging markets such as Latin America and Pakistan, Mechaly said, and they generally went to traditionally fixed-line operators such as cable companies.

Both Mechaly and Locklear said that most traditional telephony operators, particularly in the United States and Japan, were following the LTE path, which could turn the tide of devices available toward LTE's favor despite Intel's investment in WiMax-specific chipsets.

Recent news for WiMax has been more positive: Clearwire has had a strong infusion of cash, along with a board stacked with heavyweight companies like Google and Time Warner that desperately want to see the service succeed, giving them more leverage in the next generation of wireless.

But that raises the question of how much Sprint really owns the WiMax network anymore. While it has a majority share of the new Clearwire, giving Google, Intel and Time Warner veto power over major decisions could leave the network less a Sprint network and more of a shared one.

There has even been speculation that Sprint might jettison its share entirely to focus on its internal problems, such as the Nextel integration and reducing massive customer churn.

"Is Sprint going to deliver it?" asked Schooler. "That is the big question, and I don't think we're any closer to getting the answer." He said he would not be surprised if Sprint completely spun off its WiMax efforts to focus internally, although he said surviving as a national mobile carrier without a 4G network would be a dicey proposition.

Many expected Sprint to shut down the project entirely last year after the company fired CEO Gary Forsee, who had pushed WiMax. But so far the new management is holding firm on the platform's prospects, even if it needs a little help from its friends.

For the foreseeable future, there should be ample room for both technologies, with plenty of early adopters to sustain WiMax before LTE comes to market, and plenty of providers continuing to use it after that.

Whether it's enough to save Sprint will be determined by how strong the service launch is and how many "killer devices" they can help bring to market. Early on, WiMax-enabled devices will be primarily laptops and tablet PCs, with WiMax phones and other devices coming to market later.

As the technology improves, Schooler said, Sprint could offer a variety of new service models, similarly to the way Sprint enabled the Amazon Kindle's Internet access.

"There is a play for both [WiMax and LTE]," said Locklear, who expects that WiMax will still have a one- to two-year advantage. "As existing carriers move their networks to 4G, definitely the size of the market is going to be much larger for LTE 10 years from now relative to WiMax, although there is still going to be a large investment in WiMax [as well]."

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