First smartphone for WiMax unveiled

LAS VEGAS – Sprint Nextel Corp. will bring an HTC-made smartphone for its expanding WiMax data network in the U.S. sometime this summer, the carrier said this week at the annual CTIA show here.

The Evo 4G, the first smartphone for WiMax, has a 4.3-inch screen and is powered by a 1Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that runs the Android 2.1 operating system. It comes with front and back cameras, one of which is HD-video capable.

It isn’t known if the handset will be available in Vancouver, where Craig Wireless Systems will soon start its WiMAX service. The company didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for information.

Although Sprint’s WiMax network is available now in 27 markets, the Evo will default to its 3G data network where the faster network isn’t available.

The carrier said the WiMax network, which is being built by Clearwire Corp., will be available to 120 million Americans by year’s end, with coverage extending to Los Angeles Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Washington and New York 

The handset will help Sprint in its fight with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, who are preparing to launch faster networks using rival LTE technology late this year and into 2011. Verizon expects to have LTE in 25 to 30 cities serving 100 million people by year’s end.

WiMax and LTE are so-called fourth generation IP-based wireless data systems which promise average download speeds faster  than most current wireless networks. Most Canadian cellular carriers are using HSPA+, which is a stepping stone to LTE. None have announced LTE adoption plans, and an industry analyst believes it won’t come until  at least 2015.

(Intel, a major WiMax backer, will upgrade the technology in 2010)

Until now, users of Sprint’s WiMax service have only been able to use the network with WiMax-capable laptops, or laptops equipped with WiMax network cards or USB modems.

While demand for wireless broadband is high, Sprint’s prospects for growth with WiMax are sobering. To start, industry analysts note that AT&T and Verizon are well ahead of Sprint in subscribers, each with more than 80 million subscribers, compared to Sprint’s 48 million.

Even more daunting is information shared by the GSM Association just last week. The group, which represents LTE providers including AT&T and Verizon, cited Infonetics forecasts that dim Sprint’s chances with WiMax in the U.S. In 2014, the forecast shows that LTE will be used on 41 per cent of all wireless devices, compared with only 3 per cent of devices running on WiMax, despite WiMax’s time-to-market advantage. The remaining shares will go to HSPA, with 29 per cent, and EVDO (a generation behind HSPA), with 27 per cent, Infonetics said.

Perhaps Sprint will have one solid edge in the faster wireless 4G race with the Evo, because Verizon expects to have an LTE-capable smartphone by mid-2011 , easily a year after Sprint’s first 4G phone.
(On Wednesday at CTIA, Samsug Wireless announced it will have an LTE-capable smartphone for MetroPCS’ LTE network, which will begin service in Las Vegas and other cities by the end of the year.)

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse told a large CTIA audience this week that “LTE will be the larger of the two 4G standards,” but noted that Sprint couldn’t wait on LTE technology when it had “proven, tried and true” WiMax technology to run over his carrier’s readily available spectrum.

Hesse highlighted the value of a WiMax device to the medical profession, since it can serve as a Wi-Fi hot spot to eight other devices, and could be used by a home visitation nurse who might collect data over Wi-Fi from various medical devices. “All kinds of medical devices could connect,” he said.

Clearwire CEO William Morrow, also speaking to a CTIA crowd, urged other carriers adopting LTE to interoperate with WiMax. “We have the opportunity to converge [WiMax and LTE],” Morrow said. “Let’s work together and go forward.”

He noted that Intel Corp. and carrier Vodafone Group PLC, among other companies, “all believe the time is not to integrate this and move forward.”

(For more on this, see “Will LTE and WiMax converge?”)

Morrow also noted that chipmaker Beceem Communications recently announced a chip that supports both WiMax and LTE.

Verizon and AT&T representatives’ responses to questions at CTIA about whether they would be willing to allow future devices to work over both LTE and WiMax were less than encouraging.

A spokesman for Verizon said that interoperability was “not something we are looking at.”

But Glenn Lurie, AT&T’s president of emerging devices, was more blunt, saying that even though AT&T was wirelessly enabling all types of devices, not just smartphones, WiMax was not in the mix. “At AT&T, it’s all about Wi-Fi. We’re not supporting WiMax,” he said.

ABI Research analyst Kevin Burden said it might make some sense for AT&T and other LTE carriers to interoperate with WiMax, at least in terms of dual chipset in devices that will work on both standards. “What’s it going to cost to add a WiMax capability to a phone,” Burden asked. “Maybe $10?”

(From Computerworld U.S. With files by Howard Solomon)