WiMax Gets First Real Test in Baltimore

Published December 1, 2008

Sprint Nextel Corp. has opened its new wireless network to customers in Baltimore, Maryland, offering WiMax Internet service. It is the first commercial network in the United States to use the new WiMax technology for mobile customers, which could soon make municipal government-initiated wi-fi networks around the country obsolete.

The company’s WiMax venture, which debuted in late September, is predicated on offering customers low cost of entry to drive quick adoption, according to Sprint Nextel officials. The service, available for both laptops and cell phones, starts at $45 per month—$50 per month for laptops that use “air cards” to access the signal.

While some analysts are skeptical of the plan, Sprint Nextel expects WiMax to take off as consumers become accustomed to always having high-speed access to the Internet, even when away from the office and home.

Company officials liken it to someone starting with a low-cost, low-minute cell phone plan and then soon being willing to pay more for additional services.

Muni Wi-Fi in Trouble

WiMax could be fairly commonplace within three years and nearly as ubiquitous as wi-fi within five years, says Steve Titch, a telecom analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. The evolution of private-sector WiMax could spell trouble for some of the municipal wi-fi programs already in place and others in the planning stages.

“The problem with municipal wireless is that the market has caught up to what the cities were trying to do with their wi-fi programs before they finished with their plans,” Titch said, pointing to restaurants, coffee shops, and other private businesses that provide low-cost wi-fi to their customers. “By the time the cities were ready, all of the places they were interested in [covering] were already covered.”

Private Internet service providers attempting to partner with city governments in muni wi-fi projects typically lay out aggressive revenue models based on advertising sales. But those sales generally haven’t developed at anywhere near the expected levels. As a result, “free” muni wi-fi schemes have been abandoned in cities across the nation.

Muni Wi-Fi Behind Curve

Titch recommends municipalities scrap any wi-fi plans not already up and running and pull any funding not already awarded to existing plans.

“Those systems are usually behind the curve by the time they are up and running,” Titch said. “If they aren’t already behind, they will be within a couple of years.

“Municipalities should avoid making it difficult for Sprint or other WiMax providers to do what they are trying to do,” Titch continued. “With WiMax, what the municipalities are trying to do is largely redundant.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.