CTIA - Never mind that '4G' stuff, Sprint now says

Sprint's WiMax service will tap into the open Internet model, an executive said Thursday at CTIA.

Now that WiMax has been certified as a form of 3G (third-generation) mobile data infrastructure, Sprint Nextel is changing its tune about the WiMax network it plans to launch commercially in April.

Last year when Sprint was shopping around for a "4G" technology, it had a lot to say about how 4G would do something 3G networks couldn't. WiMax won out as its 4G network of choice. But in a keynote address this week at CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment in San Francisco, an executive of Sprint's WiMax business, Xohm, sang a different tune.

"I think we spend entirely too much time talking about the Gs," said Atish Gude, senior vice president of mobile broadband operations at Sprint. Last week, the Radiocommunication Sector of the International Telecommunication Union certified WiMax as a 3G technology, providing a seal of approval many governments require for carriers to deploy it. Wider deployment generally means lower equipment prices, which helps service providers.

That's not to say the carrier no longer wants to differentiate WiMax. In his presentation, Gude played up the wide band of spectrum Xohm will be able to use, which he said will cut down on delays for individual users the same way a multilane freeway can move faster than a two-lane highway even when the speed limit is the same. In the real world, a lot of people want to use the network at the same time, he said.

But more important is the business model of the two networks, Gude said, characterizing the traditional cellular business as more closed and controlled, while Xohm's business will tap into the dynamics of the open Internet. The company is opening itself up to partners for application development as well as connected devices, he said. The best known of these deals, announced in July, was an agreement with Google to develop a variety of Internet-based services.

Sprint hopes a wide range of devices, including cameras, media players and in-car electronics, ultimately will connect to the WiMax network. Instead of Sprint stores, they will be sold in the most logical places for their device types, such as consumer electronics stores. The first devices to come for Xohm next year will be wireless cards for notebook PCs, which Gude expects to be sold in the computer departments of electronics stores.

The company will also have open APIs (application programming interfaces) for third parties to develop services to run on the network. As an example, Gude envisioned a video portal that users could navigate using the five buttons traditionally found on video players. Xohm will probably charge for some of what it offers to third parties, but its aim is not to stifle innovation, he said.

Sprint isn't getting out of its cellular business now that it's starting Xohm -- which it expects to reach 100 million U.S. residents by the end of 2008 -- but seems to be looking at it in a different light now.

"We are a content distribution industry," Gude said. It's just that for most of cellular's history, all the content has been user-generated and consisted of talking.

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