Can mobile WiMax work for business users who are looking for high-speed wireless Internet access?
Sprint Nextel Corp. and financial backers that include Intel Corp. and Google Inc. think it can. "We're definitely targeting businesses," said Barry West, president of Sprint's Xohm unit, which launched its namesake network in Baltimore in late September and plans to expand the WiMax offering to five more cities by early next year.
Even though the eventual nationwide rollout of Xohm is just starting, West said it's possible to make a compelling case for business uses of the network, particularly at small and midsize companies. He claimed that 70% of business activities are conducted within 50 miles of workers' homes -- a statistic that should make a fast citywide network like Xohm look appealing, he said.
But Xohm and WiMax in general have some obvious limitations, according to wireless technology analysts. The biggest one, for now, is that the Sprint network is operational in only one city. Large companies likely wouldn't want to support laptop PCs and handheld devices on a network like Xohm unless it's running in numerous locales.
Another issue is how far Xohm can reach within cities, and whether the so-called 4G wireless technology can provide users with consistently good service. Even in Baltimore, about 30% of the 300 antennas that Sprint plans to install still weren't in place as of early October.
To help ensure full coverage for Xohm users, Sprint is working with hardware manufacturers to make available by year's end a laptop USB modem or aircard that can switch between the WiMax service and existing 3G wireless networks. Analysts such as Gartner Inc.'s Phillip Redman said it will be hard to know how truly mobile Xohm users can be until that gear is tested.
In addition, some analysts simply aren't convinced that there will be much demand for WiMax's high-speed mobile capabilities among business users. "There's a legitimate question whether this is mobile broadband for soccer moms," Redman said.
At least one company has started using the Xohm network in Baltimore. National Imaging Systems Inc., which sells Hewlett-Packard printers and printing supplies, has connected seven laptops and desktop PCs to the Sprint network via a single WiMax modem from ZyXel Communications Corp.
National Imaging has 17 employees and is based in a warehouse and office park in Glen Burnie, Md., about eight miles south of downtown Baltimore. Richard Levy, the company's CEO, said the office park isn't served by cable or DSL networks, so WiMax was a welcome alternative to the T1 line that National Imaging had been relying on for all of its voice, data and video transmissions.
"When I read about WiMax coming, I was on the phone right away ordering it," Levy said. The T1 service wasn't sufficient, especially when workers started making phone calls at the same time, he noted. So now National Imaging uses WiMax for data and video, leaving the T1 to handle only its voice calls.
Part of Levy's plan is to use Xohm along with Skype to support live videoconferencing between customers and the company's technicians on repair calls. "If you can show the customer what you want to do, it makes it a lot easier," he said.