By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007
Sprint has a vision for the next generation of on-the-go Web surfing, and it has nothing to do with cellphones or WiFi-powered coffee shops.
The Reston wireless provider, which now refers to itself as a mobile-broadband pioneer, is placing bets on a souped-upwireless technology called WiMax and has enlisted the help of Google as a first partner to spark excitement around the forthcoming launch.
Under a revenue-sharing deal announced yesterday, Sprint would provide the WiMax technology, a wireless Internet connection for laptop computers and other portable devices that offers DSL-like speeds over a range of miles, as opposed to WiFi's range of several hundred feet. Google, in turn, would provide search capabilities and its already popular applications such as e-mail, instant messaging and online calendars, on Sprint's WiMax network.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Sprint said the WiMax service would be available in Washington, Baltimore and Chicago this year, with nationwide rollout beginning sometime in the second quarter of next year. Last week, Sprint announced a 20-year partnership with Clearwire, a wireless Internet provider, to build the nationwide network to support the service.
The partnership represents the first real commitment from a major Web company into a technology that has gained little ground since it was introduced several years ago. It remains uncertain whether U.S. consumers, who are slowly adopting Web surfing on their mobile phones, would gravitate to WiMax, which would require new or upgraded devices to pick up the signal.
Sprint has not said how much the service will cost. The company plans to work with manufacturers to embed WiMax technology in electronics devices and sell access cards that would deliver the wide-range Internet signal to existing devices.
Michael Nelson, an analyst with Stanford Group in New York, said it was too soon to know whether WiMax would take off, but the partnership between the firms makes sense.
"It's further evidence of Sprint looking to build a whole ecosystem and partner with other companies to ensure the adoption of WiMax. They're really betting their future on this WiMax venture," Nelson said. "It positions both companies well . . . and doesn't necessarily cost anything if venture fails."
Like Apple with its iPhone campaign, Sprint is backing the idea of an unrestricted Internet experience on a portable device. Cellphones, with their smaller screens and slower Web connections, have limited access to all that the Internet has to offer.
"We have tried to articulate over the last number of months . . . that this is not a cellular model," said Atish Gude, Sprint's senior vice president for mobile broadband operations.
Instead, products such as music players or portable video players, which connect to a computer to access songs or video clips from the Internet, could be built with WiMax chips that allow users to bypass the computer and download new content from the back seat of a car or in a Metro tunnel, for example.
Google, which has been pushing the idea that a fully functional computer is one that is always connected to the Internet, has been developing mobile versions of its Web-based products, including e-mail, calendar and documents.