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Sprint offers 3G/4G wireless modem for laptops

The new modem will allow users to connect to Sprint Nextel's 3G cellular network when not in range of Clearwire's new 4G WiMax network.

Sprint Nextel announced Wednesday that it will start selling dual-mode 3G/4G wireless broadband modems for laptops starting Sunday.

Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem U300 Sprint Nextel

The new device allows users to access both Sprint's 3G cellular data network and the new 4G WiMax wireless network the company is building as part of the new Clearwire venture.

The modem known as the Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem U300 will use the new 4G Clearwire network with download speeds between 2 Mbps and 4Mbps where that network is available. And when users are out of range of the 4G wireless network, they will automatically be able to access Sprint's 3G network, which offers average downloads of between 600 Kbps and 1.4 Mbps, according to Sprint.

Sprint launched the 4G WiMax network called Xohm in Baltimore in October, just months before it officially merged its WiMax network with Clearwire's network. The service will be launched in other markets across the country throughout 2009.

At the Baltimore launch, Sprint's CEO Dan Hesse promised a wireless data device that would allow users to access both networks for better coverage.

"It will take a while for the new (4G) network to be built ubiquitously," Hesse said during the Baltimore press event. "And we will have new multimode devices that will use 4G where it's available, and when it's not, it will downshift to 3G to provide that ubiquitous data coverage."

The new wireless modem connects via a standard USB port and costs $149.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year subscription to the wireless data service. The wireless modem will be available through Sprint's direct business sales force and at most Baltimore-area Sprint stores and select Baltimore-area retailers, the company said. Starting in January, the device will also be available in Baltimore-area Best Buy stores.

The new wireless modem from Sprint will likely be a better deal for most consumers because the service, which costs $79.99 per month, offers the best coverage at the best price.

Several notebook manufacturers, including Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and Toshiba, are including Intel's WiMax/Wi-Fi module in new laptops, so that users can access the 4G WiMax network. But these devices do not have Sprint's 3G wireless technology integrated into them. This means that users would have to subscribe to both a 4G WiMax service from Clearwire, which regularly costs $45 per month (a $15 discount is available for the first six months), and Sprint's 3G wireless service, which costs $59.99 per month, if they wanted wireless broadband service nationwide. And because the 3G and 4G radio frequency technologies aren't integrated in these laptops, the devices would not seamlessly switch between the 3G and 4G networks.

A Sprint spokesman said the company and its partners will eventually offer embedded dual-mode 3G/4G technology in other devices. But he also pointed out that the laptops that use Intel's embedded WiMax technology and the dual mode 3G/4G modem are really aimed at different sets of customers.

The embedded laptops are for users who only need high speed wireless access close to home, while the 3G/4G modem is for road warriors who may find themselves far from Baltimore or any of the other WiMax enabled cities.