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Intel WiMax to go live, will devices follow?

Intel's WiMax wireless technology is finally ready to launch, but it's not clear how big a following the technology has among laptop suppliers.

Intel's WiMax wireless technology will finally be unleashed in two weeks. But it's not clear how big a following the technology has among device makers.

Samsung will offer Q1 Ultra Premium UMPC with XOHM WiMax upgrade.
Samsung will offer Q1 Ultra Premium UMPC with XOHM WiMax upgrade. Samsung

Intel and Sprint Nextel will team up to launch the first WiMax network in Baltimore on October 8--what the chipmaker is calling the dawn of 4G broadband because of its high speed.

Sprint will likely announce the rollout next week at WiMax World in Chicago, according to sources familiar with the plans. Sprint's WiMax-based broadband service, called XOHM, is scheduled to go live by the end of this month, according to those sources. (They say the XOHM Baltimore network is actually up now and is being used by company employees.)

Sprint's service will only be offered in Baltimore initially. Other cities such as Portland, OR, Washington D.C., and Chicago are expected to follow next year.

As part of the rollout, a WiMax card for laptops based on the PC Express standard will be offered by Samsung, Sprint said.

U.S.-based mobile WiMax differs from Wi-Fi in that it is intended as a truly mobile technology that can be used, for example, while traveling in a car, just as cell phones are used. The target market--at least initially--is not cell phones, however. "We're thinking beyond the cell phone," said a Sprint spokesperson.

And this is where Intel comes into the picture. Intel will supply chipsets to manufacturers of laptops and small devices. They, in turn, will sell the products to consumers and businesses who would use Sprint's service. The Intel chipset, previously codenamed Echo Peak, is a WiMax- and Wi-Fi-capable product. It is now branded the WiMax/WiFi Link 5050 Series.

Some WiMax-based devices have popped up already. A listing on Amazon, for example, shows a WiMax-enabled Nokia N810 "Portable Internet Tablet." Samsung has announced a WiMax-capable Q1 Ultra Premium Mobile PC with a 7-inch screen.

And laptop suppliers have indicated in the past that they will bring out WiMax-capable machines. Dell, Sony, Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Panasonic, and Toshiba have all indicated in the past that WiMax products will be forthcoming.

"There are several notebook vendors that are going through a certification process to get the notebooks certified on the network. Information about that will be made public on October 8," the Sprint spokesperson said.

"Probably in October there will be several (manufacturers) that have laptops with (Intel's) Centrino Wi-Fi/WiMax card in them," said a source familiar with the companies' plans.

Analysts--the skeptics that they are--have their doubts about the momentum behind WiMax. "It was supposed to be a crossover device market. Devices with 4- or 5-inch screen sizes. The number of (those) devices we were supposed to see by now simply hasn't materialized," said Tero Kuittinen, wireless analyst at Global Crown Capital.

He also said that Intel must contend with a media focused elsewhere. "It's hard for WiMax to cut through media frenzy that surrounds the new smartphones--the iPhone and Google phone. They're sucking up all the media oxygen."

And he says WiMax needs to offer a compelling pricing plan that would lure buyers away from current plans, especially in the economic environment today, when he believes consumers are loathe to commit to yet another payment plan.

Sprint says its plan will be different. "You're not locked into a contract. You're not locked into a device," the Sprint spokesperson said.