I arrived at the XOHM WiMAX event in Baltimore just in the nick of time this morning. Barry West, the CTO and President of XOHM Sprint Nextel, was describing the network and it was interesting to me in the calculated approach he used. As a current 3G customer, I look at my service as an "anywhere" type of wireless broadband solution, pending coverage of course. West positioned WiMAX in a more consumer-friendly language, calling it "A hotspot as big as a city." Folks know what a hotspot is, he contends.
In terms of availability, today was more about devices than the network. After all, the network is here in Baltimore and it is up and running. It’s worth noting that it’s running at around 70% coverage, meaning there are definite bubbles or pockets of Baltimore not yet covered. West says there are around 180 towers in play and the complete Baltimore roll-out will use near 300.
So what about those devices? Currently, there are notebooks models from four vendors with integrated WiMAX capabilities: Lenovo, Acer, Asus and Toshiba. In 2009 we’ll see Panasonic, Dell, Samsung and Sony join in with integrated WiMAX in notebooks. Bear in mind that Samsung and Panasonic have a very limited presence in the U.S. notebook market, so it’s really Dell and Sony that are the story here. The WiMAX edition of the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet has been available for some time and now those devices can enjoy the service. As announced this morning, ZTE will have a USB modem for WiMAX; based on what I heard today, we might see availability of the TU25 this month. Barry also mentioned that there are 20 devices undergoing certification now, so there’s more in the pipeline. Interestingly, although WiMAX is based on a standard protocol (802.16e, in this case), the certification process may surprisingly not be as open as some might hope and could be an additional adoption barrier. Considering the geographic challenges right now with just 70% of a single metropolitan market covered, WiMAX doesn’t need another challenge.
One less challenge is the purchase process. West explained that consumers will have a multitude of options in terms of where to get equipment and more importantly, that the equipment is separate from the service. Six Best Buy stores in Baltimore, as well as on-line retailer like Amazon and NewEgg will carry XOHM equipment. Device activation is alleged to be easier than traditional 3G activations and unlike approaches tied to phone numbers or SIM cards, XOHM devices have service tied to their unique MAC addresses. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any activation examples.
We did see the service, or rather the end results of the service. I jumped in a van that was outfitted with a large flat-panel display in the back. On the display was a custom Google Maps application that tracked the location of the van so we could see our ride in real time. More importantly, the map showed a star on our route each time the WiMAX signal was handed off from one tower to another.
I ran various speed tests during the ride and noticed a few things:
- Overall, the speeds were impressively high and the latency was relatively low when compared to my current EV-DO Rev. A solution. I witnessed download speeds over 5 Mbps with uploads over 2 Mbps. Latency was in the 70 to 100 ms range.
- I noticed "speed bumps" when we started to roll from a complete stop at a light or a sign. The speeds dropped by around 30% but only for a second. I’d call it a noticeable blip if you were watching for it, but most users and applications wouldn’t likely notice.
- Watching for signal hand-offs between towers showed similar "speed bumps". Again, not deal-breakers.
Second is the dreaded VoIP question: will XOHM allow it on their WiMAX network, especially as it could further dilute Sprint’s voice business? West says that WiMAX at its core is a mobile data network and voice is just another data application. He went on to say that XOHM would actually encourage VoIP services and even mentioned Skype by name.
Third is how to handle existing 3G customers that also find themselves in range of a WiMAX network. There will be aircards by the end of the year that offer a dual-mode, i.e.: they’ll work on both EV-DO and WiMAX networks. When pressed about cost of such a service, Hesse hinted at customer’s paying more than they currently do since they’re getting more service.
Lastly, I chatted with others about the network itself. I know that today was about the devices, but in the end XOHM is selling a service. Many people I spoke with were cautiously optimistic about the network itself. One comment worth repeating is paraphrased this way: the network is a like Swiss Cheese. The cheese is really good, but it’s full of holes. That’s an appropriate summary and worth remembering over the next two years because that’s about the time we should see AT&T and Verizon start rolling out their LTE solution. It’s going to take a large amount of resources for XOHM to have a solid foothold in those two years.
In fact, they don’t yet have all of those resources. Hesse said that they have about $3 billion in capital to get a nationwide WiMAX network implemented but it’s going to take $5 billion. Somehow XOHM either needs to ramp up revenues very quickly or check the deep pockets of their partners and turn this basic Swiss Cheese into a fine Gruyère.