Sprint Nextel Signals Start of WiMax Era in Baltimore

As Sprint and its partners celebrate the official launch of the first U.S. commercial WiMax network, questions remain about just how you pay for a $5 billion network in a financial market full of turmoil. Sprint thinks its partnerships with Intel, Google, Comcast and Time Warner will insulate the ambitious project to build a nationwide wireless, IP-based data network.

BALTIMORE-As Sprint representatives introduced one executive after another and invited them to share the stage Oct. 8 with Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse and Barry West, CTO and president of Sprint's Xohm WiMax unit, the bonhomie was worthy of Charm City.

Celebrating the official launch of the nation's first commercial WiMax network on a sparkling morning in Baltimore's historic waterfront district, West crowed, "The United States has now made a major step toward moving to a mobile broadband network. Xohm will extend the home and office Internet experience to anywhere you are."

Joining the handshaking and backslapping were executives from Sprint's partners in the ambitious project to launch a wireless, IP-based data network, including Sean Maloney, Intel's executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer.

Representatives from Lenovo and Acer, which are each rushing notebooks into the market that are equipped with Intel chip sets to take advantage of the new wireless broadband technology, climbed onto the stage for their kudos, as did makers of WiMax modems and dongles and other WiMax gear makers.

"Today is all about the embedded model and the WiMax chip," West said, grabbing a pair of hedge clippers and clipping a strand of wire symbolizing traditional cable and DSL broadband lines. "This is a special one for Verizon."

Click here to see images of Lenovo's new WiMax-enabled ThinkPad laptops.

Then came the hard questions: Will the technology work across a nationwide network, does the business model make sense and how do you pay for it?

West said if WiMax can make it in Baltimore, then it can make it anywhere, noting that Baltimore's brick buildings and abundance of water made covering the city with a wireless Internet connection fast enough to run Web 2.0 applications a unique challenge.

"The RF [radio frequency] propagation typically doesn't behave itself with a lot of water around," West said. "All of our engineers will tell you this city is challenging."

Although the Baltimore rollout is only partially completed, with approximately 130 of a needed 300 towers lit, West said there have been "very, very few customers who have said it's not working, but the take-up rate is extremely encouraging and more than we expected." He added that the Xohm Web site had 30,000 hits in the first four days of the rollout.