While all of Sprint's services from push to talk (CEO Gary Forsee announced that Sprint's PTT services both iDEN and CDMA will be marketed as Nextel Direct Connect) to Sprint's Pivot quad-play product got their moment in the sun, it was clear that the day was dedicated to WiMAX. Sprint's new service will be marked as Xohm (pronounced Zohm) and Sprint expects to have 100 million people covered by Xohm service by 2008. The tone of Sprint's briefing was interesting, particularly given the interactions I've had with the company on WiMAX before. In previous discussions WiMAX just seemed like another access medium and myself and colleagues at Network Computing struggled to figure out the answer to: "If WiMAX is the answer, what is the question?"
Today's discussion provided a better idea of the direction that Sprint wants to take its new Xohm service. Sprint's executives stressed that Xohm was (as we had always pondered about) not just another connection medium. It's not a dumb pipe. Rather, Sprint defined Xohm as an "Internet destination," complete with advertising, e-commerce and entertainment services to drive revenue beyond just access charges. Sprint has begun to develop it's advertising and content model through its partnership with Google, which was mentioned several times throughout the keynote addresses. I wouldn't be surprised if other content providers jumped in as well allowing Xohm to become a portal as much as it is a pipe.
Sprint expects to have 50 million embedded WiMAX devices available by 2008 (note that that's units not different models). We can assume that the large number of these devices will be Intel Centrino powered laptops which will include WiMAX connectivity. Users will be able to self activate their Xohm accounts, allowing for multiple retail models to emerge (akin, in some ways, to the iPhone). I've always been a bit skeptical that users would start signing up in droves for Xohm just because it's integrated into their laptop. What's made Wi-Fi successful is that wireless connections with it are either free or through a nominal per hour or per day charge. True, there are Wi-Fi subscriptions through companies like iPass but many people will just sign up for access on a day to day basis. Sprint has apparently realized the same thing and announced that multiple pricing models including pay as you go, pre paid and monthly subscriptions will be available.
Of course the other parallels that's often drawn between Wi-Fi and WiMAX is chip cost. Because WiMAX is based on 802.16 standards, WiMAX radios should be significantly less expensive than competing cellular chips. Two advantages exist here: 1.) Carriers can do away with device subsidies that lock consumers into multiyear service agreements. 2.) Consumer electronic manufacturers can put WiMAX radios into a whole host of new devices like cameras, handheld games, etc. It's not yet clear whether Sprint will offer discounts for users who carry multiple WiMAX devices, similar to how a family plan groups minutes together for multiple members of a family.
None of this is to say that Sprint doesn't face challenges in its WiMAX deployment. Beyond pricing and marketing questions and the development of a brand new device ecosystem, there is the question of backhaul. With WiMAX supporting 3 ??? 4Mbps per cell site, it's clear that the current plan of utilizing T-1s from local carriers wont cut it. The good news is that Sprint stated that its working with its cable partners, carriers and fiber providers to increase backhaul for its existing cell sites in order to support WiMAX.