Switched On: The WiMAX window (Part 1)

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

It's a beautiful afternoon at SeaWorld. You're walking through one exhibit when you spot a group of penguins that look like they're about to break into a number from Happy Feet III: Mumble's Bumble, which you watched with your nephew after you wirelessly downloaded it to your portable video player last week.

You shoot some video with the high-definition camcorder pulled from your shirt pocket, press a button, and the video is soon uploaded to your favorite video sharing site. By the time you're out of the exhibit, the little scamp has sent you a video response on your internet tablet asking if you managed not to spill the popcorn this time. As you head home and turn on the wirelessly streaming music service in your car, you think to yourself that he'll get his the next time you two go head-to-head in that multiplayer shooter you love to play on your PSP2 during lunch in the park. You laugh that knowing, resolved laughter that precedes the credit roll in sitcoms.

If all goes as planned with Xohm, Sprint's WiMAX service, much of this scenario could actually become reality before future presidential candidates air their negative ads targeting the next incumbent. Sprint claims that Xohm will deliver between two and four megabits per second -- between four and five times the throughput of today's 3G networks -- at a tenth of the infrastructure cost. But what's even more extraordinary than Xohm's throughput or cost efficiency is its business model. Sprint has decided that the wireless future is in some ways bigger than any operator can -- or might want to -- completely control, and is making a $5 billion bet on the limits of convergence in the cellphone.

How will Sprint line up enough subscribers to recoup that kind of investment? It claims that it won't have to. Xohm is poised to realize the holy grail of high-speed wireless access to practically any mobile device, a dream for which WiFi has lacked the range and 3G cellular networks have lacked the flexibility and cost-effectiveness.

The access plans Sprint intends to offer include a blanket subscription for all personal devices that include WiMAX access and a la carte or session-based pricing similar to what you find today for WiFi at airport lounges. Sprint seeks to become two businesses -- a wireless operator evolving voice and gingerly positioning advances in EV-DO and a wireless ISP that is free of subsidizing cellphones and thrives in the world of wireless notebook PCs, consumer electronics, cars, homes and unforeseen devices.

For now, though, the one near-term device where high-volume retail is set to meet high-speed WiMAX is the laptop. Intel plans to build WiMAX support into the Centrino chipset next year and there will surely be several PC cards and ExpressCards for older computers. In fact, it's fair to say that any device that is fair game for Wi-Fi today is a target for WiMAX moving forward, and Sprint promises that low-cost chips that can accommodate both wireless standard are in the offing. Until the network gets completely built out, though, Sprint will offer PC access via dual-mode cards that can work on WiMAX or its already widely deployed EV-DO networks.

Beyond that, many of Sprint's current partners -- Nokia, Motorola and Samsung's telecom group -- run as deep in the cellphone device world as they come. Their idea of consumer product diversification is the femtocell. Among the other early devices that are slated to support embedded WiMAX are revamped versions of Nokia's N800 internet tablet and Samsung's Q1 Ultra UMPC. These are highly functional mobile internet access products that are well-differentiated from cellphones. However, they are niche devices, a far cry from the PowerShots, iPods and Nintendo DSes of the world, the juggernauts that are exactly where Sprint wants embedded WiMAX to flourish.

WiMAX could fundamentally change the way we think about portable consumer electronics, but it's not without its challenges. Next week's column will explore some of them.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.