WiMAX a precursor to Consumer Device Connectivity?

The first WiMAX networks are planned to start in less than a week. According to Eric Lin of PhoneScoop.com, Sprint Nextel will “soft launch” its so called XOHM WiMax network in the next few days. Lin quotes Bin Shen, VP of Sprint Nextel’s Product Management and Partnership Development. Shen says “Chicago, Washington DC and Baltimore will all go live at soft launch.” Sprint Nextel thus keeps their promise to have a live network by 2007, even if the launch is non-commercial. On the negative side, wireless ISP Clearwire has announced they will not continue to partner with Sprint Nextel to develop WiMAX networks. In dropping their participation, Clearwire cited the complexities associated with the Letter of Intent they signed in July, 2007. Sprint Nextel seems unphased by Clearwire’s decision, saying they remain fully committed to deploying WiMAX networks and developing services for those systems. What might those devices and services be?

Broadband network cards and laptops with WiMAX chips seem obvious products. Dual mode CDMA/WiMAX handsets are also predictable. During the days of the Clearwire partnership, consumer electronic products such as digital cameras and portable gaming devices were to have Intel made WiMAX chips built in. TiVo like hard drive equipment capable of storing full length movies seemed also possible, along with real time video conferencing hardware. But what about special purpose devices? One such product is Amazon’s book reader called Kindle. It accesses the net to download electronic book editions. Air time is bundled into the price of the e-book, so a customer is not directly billed for access. A digital photo service could act in the same way. Photos might go directly from a camera to a hosting or processing service that would recover its airtime costs by building them into the goods it sells. One could also provide Internet access by charging for each session. Aside from the Kindle, this new business model, the first test of open networks, has not been tried by other companies. The notable exception is OnStar, provided by General Motors.

OnStar is a communications, monitoring and tracking service. Among other things, OnStar can provide voice communications, air bag deployment notification, help in an emergency, vehicle diagnostic assessment, stolen car location assistance, and remote door unlock. GM bundles OnStar’s cost into the price of a vehicle, or it charges a monthly fee. The customer pays GM, therefore, for a service, and General Motors in turn pays airtime costs to a wireless carrier. As noted before, this business model has not caught on, save for telematic services to utilities providing gas pipeline and electrical systems monitoring. In those cases, a monthly fee is charged each company for information provided over cellular radio networks.

It will be interesting to see if Sprint Nextel will have the financial ability to build out their WiMAX networks. Toptechnews.com says WiMAX accounted for about $31 million in expenses and $73 million in investments during the third quarter. This for a company that in the most recent quarter lost $500 million in revenue over the last year. 337,000 subscribers were lost in the last quarter alone. WiMAX technology may be visionary, but will any carrier have the funding to make it work?

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