WiMax begins to gel at Sprint

The No. 3 U.S. cell phone operator is working with Motorola on WiMax handsets and network gear.

Cell phone operator Sprint plans to begin testing next-generation WiMax handsets and other WiMax equipment from Motorola, a sign that Sprint's future network plans are falling into place.

Sprint will be puttering in its labs with a mobile version of the experimental wireless technology that distributes broadband Internet access over a range of several miles. If the technology passes muster, Sprint says, a small-scale trial in a major urban area will be next.

The Motorola/Sprint deal dovetails with Sprint's ongoing work with Intel to develop WiMax cell phone circuitry, said Len Barlik, Sprint vice president of technology development. The development work with Intel began earlier this year, he added.

Sprint's growing interest in WiMax is no surprise. Most top-tier U.S. phone operators are experimenting with WiMax because it is thought to be an effective way to extend coverage into geographically challenging areas, and it could be used to beef up calling capacity in major urban markets.

Intel has been the driving force behind WiMax, touting it as the long-distance broadband Internet sibling of Wi-Fi.

For all the enthusiasm surrounding the technology, though, large-scale WiMax deployments are still years away. One reason for that is the WiMax standard, meant to ensure that equipment made by different manufacturers is compatible, still awaits ratification by the appropriate standards body. From an operator's perspective, a company prematurely committing to WiMax risks banking on a standard that might not be compatible with WiMax networks of the future.

Sprint won't consider a full-scale WiMax deployment at least until the standard is ratified, which is expected to happen sometime late this year or early next year, Barlik said. "This is more of a development exercise right now," he added.

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