Sprint's 4G Xohm WiMax: How Fast Is It?

Cities of the Future

The plan is to expand beyond Baltimore to include Washington, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I., in the coming weeks and months.

"We'll build out the network so that it will be available to where 80 million people live or work by the end of 2009," adds Shen. "By 2010, the plan is to have a network that reaches 140 million people. In 2011, Xohm will match the coverage of Sprint's current 3G EV-DO network."

It's extremely ambitious to build out a wireless network in less than three years, but Monica Paolini of Sammamish, Wash.-based Senza Fili Consulting, says, "This is a realistic schedule, but only as long as the money holds out. To succeed, Xohm needs to simultaneously have devices available, a working network and customers."
How fast is it?

Speed is of the essence when it comes to WiMax. I spent the better part of a day roaming around Baltimore, testing the network at six locations using SpeedTest's online bandwidth meter. As a test system, I used a Lenovo ThinkPad X301 with built-in WiMax as well as a Sierra Wireless AirCard 875U that works with AT&T's BroadbandConnect data network.

The Xohm network delivered a peak download speed of 4.4Mbit/sec., while AT&T could muster only 1.7Mbit/sec. -- that's nearly three times the throughput at exactly the same locations. During a drive around the city, the hand-offs from tower to tower were seamless and glitch-free. WiMax can deliver data to a car moving at highway speeds, perfect for back-seat surfing or doing work on a commuter train.

On average, Xohm pushed through more than 3Mbit/sec., compared with 1.3 Mbit/sec. for the AT&T network. More to the point, the latency of the WiMax network was about one-third that of the AT&T network, meaning that the data you need won't be sitting on servers waiting for an active connection to transmit it to your notebook. This streamlines access and downloads.

At almost all of the locations I tested, Xohm quickly brought up YouTube and played videos flawlessly, while the AT&T network balked a couple of times and once produced jittery video with unsynchronized audio.

As good as it is, however, Xohm is not perfect, and its engineers need to work out some of the early bugs. At one location, I wasn't able to connect to Xohm at all, while five feet away, I got on quickly with 4Mbit/sec. of bandwidth at my disposal.

Barry West, Xohm's CEO, chalks this up to a network that still needs to be completed. "There are bubbles of connectivity with spaces in between," he says. "You can't build a network overnight."
Getting online the WiMax way

A bigger problem is the paucity of devices that can connect to the network. At this point, there are only a handful of devices available. Here are some highlights.
Modems and data cards

These devices connect your existing laptop or desktop computer to the Xohm service.

Despite looking like a futuristic coffee maker or an alien spaceship, Zyxel's Xohm Modem, model MAX206M2, is the equivalent of a cable or DSL modem for the Xohm network. It has an Ethernet jack on the back to connect it to a home router to distribute the data throughout a house or apartment. Sure, it's big and clunky (6.5 by 6.45 by 4.65 in.), but it's meant to be hidden. It costs $80.

Samsung 's Xohm ExpressCard, SWC-E100, weighs 1.3 ounces and works like a charm for accessing the network. The good news is that setup is quick and easy; the bad news is that the card doesn't work with Mac or Linux computers, cutting into its usefulness. The card costs $60.

Look for ZTE and Motorola to introduce USB adapters that can transform many notebooks into WiMax systems. But as with the ExpressCard, this will be a Windows-only data party, with Mac and Linux systems left out in the cold.

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