Thursday October 9th sees the official launch of Sprint's 4G XOHM network in Baltimore. I received an invitation to the event and wish I could have gone. I am interested in how this network is going to work. It offers Sprint an opportunity to reinvent networking from cellular companies. Obviously the main limitation at this point is the network coverage. However that is something that will get fixed with time.
I was lucky enough to have some early discussions with members of the team behind this network and that makes me doubly interested to see how the service evolves. What is a potential game changer is the involvement from the outset of Intel. Over the coming months we should see a growing range of electronic equipment coming with WiMax capabilities. Intel is heavily promoting their WiMax chipsets and this should seed a market that is possibly more ubiquitous than the 802.11b/g networking standard.
We can no doubt expect some rough times ahead as Sprint races to expand the network and keep ahead of customer expectations. If they truly make connecting and using the network easy they will face challenges staying ahead of the demand curve. However, the wide area broadband capability of WiMax represents an alternative to traditional 3G offerings from cellular providers and the coverage and speed combination WiMax offers may represent a serious challenge to WiFi. In theory WiFi is ubiquitous but in fact it is a short range system with heavy fragmentation. The patchy roaming capability of WiFi leaves even subscribers to AT&T, Boingo or other large WiFi providers feeling nickle and dimed. This is especially true when traveling abroad. We still have a long way to go before we reach the situation where we truly have ubiquitous AND affordable network access GLOBALLY.
In a few years we may well look back on this launch as a new phase in Mobile Internet technology. This could be the emergence of a mobile device oriented network where cameras, phones and a diverse range of products come with built in connectivity to the Internet. In all this the real challenge for Sprint and others supporting WiMax will be making it easy and affordable for consumers to attach devices to this network. I would expect to see a range of new business models emerge. For example, we might see products arrive where the cost of registering and using the network is built in to the initial product fee. We might also see bundling where an individual or family could connect an unlimited number of devices in a single locality for a fixed fee.
When you think about it the real challenge is not the network build out. The actual challenge is in building incredibly adaptable provisioning and billing platforms that can offer these innovative subscription options to customers.
When I look at the evolution of Web 2.0 there has been very little new technology developed. Many of the components in the Web 2.0 software stack existed 5-10 years ago. No - the real transformation that has been delivered by the Web 2.0 world is the automation of system provisioning. Ten years ago it was possible to create a web site, get it hosted and update it on a regular basis in a blog style. What Web 2.0 has brought us is the ability to automate every step in that process thereby making the Internet more accessible to everyone. This is the lesson that Sprint and any of the WiMax vendors need to learn from the Web 2.0 world.