To open or not to open, Sprint & its WiMAX network

Sprint’s WiMAX investment is one of the most exciting drivers behind the mobile Internet this year. But whether or not Sprint will embrace the open model of the Internet or the traditionally closed way of the phone companies when it comes to its first WiMAX devices is still up for debate within the company — or so said Atish Gude, Sprint’s senior VP of mobile broadband operations, at a wireless conference on Wednesday.

Gude said that while Sprint eventually wants to embrace the open Internet-centric model for devices that connect to its WiMAX network — browseable devices and open platforms — the company is still wrestling with whether it should lean toward a closed or open model when it launches. “Do you start with an open model, or start with a closed model and move to an open model,” he asked. (Don’t ask consumers, that would be too easy.)

For example, Gude wondered whether the open Internet and browsing is necessarily the best service for WiMAX-connected dedicated devices like a camera or a gaming device with no keyboards. Gude seemed to think it was in the consumer’s best interest to take baby steps with a closed model and then slowly open it up. Yuck.

While companies that make consumer electronics like Sony (PSP), and Microsoft (Zune) have been going over this connected devices debate for awhile, it’s funny that U.S. phone companies are just starting to hash out these issues. I guess the carrier’s answer has been so obvious when it comes to mobile devices and the Internet, that it takes WiMAX to start up the conversation again.

Gude said a few other interesting things like how the consumer might pay for its WiMAX service: “An individual customer can have a subscription for multiple devices. . . ‘X’ number of devices. . .say an Internet connection is $30 or $40, then we think there will be a mobility premium of $10 or $15. We’re still figuring it out.”

On the topic of VoIP, Gude says, “In the Internet world VoIP is an application. . . we will be deploying VoIP as a service of our WiMAX network, but a dedicated standalone device? — the point is not to go back to the [voice-only] cellular network.”

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