Baltimore residents will be the first in the country today to have access to a next-generation broadband network built by a major wireless company - a step that turns much of the city into a "hot spot" for Web surfing on the move.
Called XOHM, Sprint Nextel Corp.'s network represents the next big step in the telecommunication industry's race to build more robust broadband services, as consumers increasingly navigate the Web with laptops and mobile devices.
Using a technology standard known as WiMAX, Sprint's network is akin to the so-called Wi-Fi "hot spot" you might find at a coffee shop. With Wi-Fi, you can cruise online wirelessly, but only within a limited area of no more than a few hundred feet. Sprint's WiMAX network, however, can cover a far larger geographic area, with connection speeds that will rival - and even surpass, depending on location - the wired cable or DSL modems used in homes, the company boasts.
Some tech-industry watchers expect the network, which will blanket the city with wireless coverage, to spur a revolution in new gadgets, such as digital cameras that can automatically upload photos to the Internet, cars that can quickly present their drivers with real-time traffic data and phones that can feed users information based on their location.
"It's certainly something a lot of people are going to be watching very closely," said Christopher C. King, a Baltimore-based senior telecommunications analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. "This is really the new frontier for wireless right now."
Starting today, Sprint officials said, customers will be able to buy devices that plug into their computers and visit a Web site to pay for the service. Consumers can start to access the network as soon as they install the plug-in devices, which initially will be sold online and by telephone, according to Sprint.
The roll-out of the XOHM network in Baltimore is an important venture for Sprint, which has struggled in recent years with defecting cellular customers and a reputation for poor customer service. The success of the network will depend on how well it's developed across the country over the next few years, and whether consumers are willing to pay to connect more of their gadgets to the Internet, analysts said. Sprint expects to spend more than $5 billion to build out the XOHM network in the U.S.
Other major wireless companies, such as Verizon and AT&T;, are busy developing their own next-generation high-speed broadband wireless networks under a different technology, known as Long Term Evolution, or LTE, which promises to offer even faster mobile Internet connection speeds. But industry analysts say they are at least two years away from offering them to customers.
Sprint's network in Baltimore, on the other hand, is more than half complete and available now to the public, with coverage in large sections of the city and some parts of Baltimore County. The network is also being developed in other cities, including Washington; Boston; Chicago; Providence R.I.; Philadelphia; and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. The company has plans to cover 200 million people across the country over the next two years, officials said.
Sprint chose to launch the network first in the Baltimore area for a couple of reasons, said Barry West, Sprint's chief technology officer and president of the XOHM division: It's not too big of a metropolitan area to cover, and the varied geography - from the tall buildings downtown to the thick-walled brick rowhouses throughout most of the city - posed the right challenges for its engineers to overcome. Sprint officials also said the Baltimore area, with about 1.3 million people, was the ideal size for fine-tuning their marketing and customer service efforts before they launch in other bigger cities.
Sprint has lined up a wide array of technology partners - from computer-chip manufacturers to makers of mobile devices - to support XOHM's launch in the United States. Worldwide, more than 500 companies are involved in developing or supporting the technology.
"The whole world is looking at what's going on here, because it is a new business model," West said during an interview and demonstration of the network recently in Baltimore.
"What we want is for people to have WiMAX in everything, including your washing machine, so your washing machine can communicate to its service center whenever it goes wrong," West said. "It could communicate with your [Microsoft] Outlook calendar to schedule service that suits me. That may sound a little far-fetched, but it's not."
Within the next few months, a number of computer manufacturers will be selling laptops that come embedded with specially designed WiMAX chips. Until then, consumers who want to connect to the network will need to buy devices, which start at $59.99, that plug into their laptops or desktop computers. The devices are expected to be sold in stores in the near future.
The pricing plans will be a change from what traditional cell phone and Internet service providers typically offer their customers. Sprint will offer a $10 "daily pass," a $25 "home" monthly plan and a $30 "on-the-go" monthly plan for mobile devices.
The "home" and "on-the-go" services can be combined for $50 a month for a lifetime of service, as part of a limited promotion, according to Sprint spokesman John Polivka.
XOHM, which will spin off into a new company in which Sprint will retain majority ownership, is at least two years ahead of other major competitors' efforts to give consumers a similar high-speed wireless broadband network, analysts said. The head start is important as XOHM hopes to use its lead in the marketplace to foster widespread consumer adoption of its network, company officials said.
During a demonstration for a Baltimore Sun reporter two weeks ago, officials with Sprint drove through the city in a van, which featured a 23-inch television and several wireless laptops. Using the WiMAX network, a Sprint employee visited a popular video Web site and began watching the movie Men in Black without any disruption. The download speed was about six megabytes per second, the officials said.
That kind of download speed compares favorably with the performance of wired options for home use, such as cable modems and digital subscriber lines offered through telephone companies. Broadband download speeds for wired residential use range from below one megabyte to up to seven megabytes per second in the Baltimore area, with costs that typically start in the low $20 range.
Sean Maloney, chief sales and marketing officer for Intel Corp., which is embedding WiMAX chips in computers that will hit the market soon, said the technology will support a wireless device market that some believe has the potential to be bigger than the personal computer market.
About the launch of WiMAX in the city this week, Maloney said: "I think you're going to get a lot of geeks coming by to check it out. Baltimore will be temporarily the geek capital of the world."
For periodic updates on WiMAX, read the consumer blog at baltimoresun.com/consuminginterests