Sprint's Technical Chief Sees Future In Affordable, Do-It-All Cellphones

Barry West wants to simplify cellphone use without eroding  performance.
Barry West wants to simplify cellphone use without eroding performance. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

Barry West has heard his share of static.

It has been his job to manage the difficult technical integration of Sprint and Nextel for the past two years. As chief technical officer, first for Nextel and now for the combined company, he has had to wrestle with problems with Nextel's network that have caused millions of customers to leave. He has also had to move Nextel's service off airwaves that interfered with those of public safety agencies.

And now, he's the chief architect of the company's future. Sprint said yesterday it may spend as much as $5 billion over three years, up from its earlier estimate of $3 billion, to build a high-speed network it is calling "Xohm," using a technology called WiMax.

The investment has drawn criticism from some analysts and investors, who say the company should instead be working to improve its current networks. Sprint, however, says the WiMax network will connect customers to the Internet twice as fast as current cellular networks, an improvement the company hopes will help it regain ground it has been losing to competitors.

Last week, Sprint announced a net gain in monthly customers for the first time in several quarters. However, the cost of acquiring those customers, combined with lingering merger costs and WiMax start-up expenses, caused Sprint's second-quarter profit to plummet 95 percent.

Yesterday, Sprint invited analysts and investors to Vienna to see the products associated with its WiMax network. Sprint also unveiled a new service that will extend Nextel's walkie-talkie-like service to customers using Sprint's network.

Following are excerpts from an interview with West:

Q What will consumers be able to do with WiMax that they can't already do with their cellphones?

A The cellphone has evolved to become very complicated . . . with cameras in them and MP3 players in them. What we really want is all that functionality but in a high-class product, not something that's just a mixture of a lot of things that's very complex to operate. If you can imagine the functionality of the [Apple] iPhone with great access to the Internet, that's the kind of thing you'll be able to do. . . . The experience you get with a Blackberry is a great e-mail service, but it's not a great Web experience. But imagine having a device that does great e-mail, and with which I can literally see my family in live pictures and video. . . . It's the sort of thing we'll be able to do at an affordable rate. That type of functionality is what we'll be taking for granted in a few years' time.

Why did Sprint choose WiMax for its next-generation network?

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