- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Barry J. West, the man overseeing the rollout of Sprint Nextel Corp.’s next-generation WiMax network, calls the technology “a paradigm shift.”

“What if consumers could get access to whatever they wanted wherever they were?” he asks. “What if a new technology were to come along that could unleash literally hundreds of new devices? … What if you could walk up to your door and it knew it was you?”

Mr. West, president of Sprint’s Xohm business unit, yesterday offered an update on the company’s multibillion-dollar vision at the Wireless Communications Association International conference in the District.

Sprint, the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier, has touted WiMax for its faster speeds, bigger bandwidth and ability to travel farther than existing technologies. The company, based in Overland Park, Kan., pledged to spend $5 billion on the project by 2010, creating citywide mobile Internet hot spots.

The service also is poised to turn traditional wireless business plans on their head. Any device with a WiMax chip set will be able to access Xohm, meaning that Sprint won’t require a contract for service, a move carriers make to recoup the costs of subsidizing handsets.

“We don’t particularly enjoy the things we are required to do to make a return for our shareholders,” Mr. West said of wireless contracts. “I’m one person. Why shouldn’t I have as many devices as I want [without contracts for each one]?”

After firing up their devices, Xohm users will be greeted by a Web portal, much the same as when purchasing wireless service at an airport or coffee shop, Mr. West said. WiMax-enabled chips, like those for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, will be ubiquitous in the future, he added.

“Imagine, if you will, just about everything with you has access to the Internet,” he said.

Xohm will roll out later this year in the Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. markets. Before WiMax-enabled devices hit the shelves, Sprint will sell mobile broadband cards to allow existing laptops to connect to the network, Mr. West said. The company will market the service through its retail stores and door to door.

Major wireless players that are partnering on the Xohm project include Intel Corp., Motorola Inc., Nokia, Samsung and Google Inc.

With Xohm, Sprint will be the first U.S. carrier to implement a fourth-generation network. Rivals AT&T; Inc. and Verizon Communications have embraced a competing technology called LTE. Technical specifications for LTE are still being developed, whereas WiMax standards were completed in 2005, Mr. West noted.

“We have a significant time-to-market advantage,” he said. “These cards are here. They’re working now.”

Analysts and investors are split on the wisdom of Sprint’s Xohm initiative. Some argue that the subscriber-hemorrhaging firm should refocus on its core objectives as a wireless carrier. Others see the project as Sprint’s saving grace.

Mr. West said it’s not necessarily about one company or one technology, but rather reigniting an industry that has reached saturation in terms of voice usage.

“Unless we have devices implanted in our heads, there’s only so much we can talk,” he said. “This isn’t about WiMax. This isn’t about LTE; this is about growth in telecoms again.”

Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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