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Sprint Taking WiMax Indoors

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is already examining a number of different options for providing robust indoor coverage over the WiMax network it is planning to launch in the U.S. at the end of the year and through 2008. The Reston, Va.-based operator wants to ensure that corporate and campus sites can get high-speed wireless broadband over the network indoors and out, Bin Shen, Sprint Nextel's VP of Broadband tells Unstrung in an interview this morning.

Although the company has already named its major cell site infrastructure vendors for the deployment -- Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), and Samsung Corp. -- Shen says that the operator has been making "some inquiries" about WiMax "pico cells and micro cells" for in-building applications.

"We need to make sure we can address specific markets with WiMax," says Shen. As well as corporate in-building and campus deployments, these could include shopping malls and conference centers.

To this end, the operator is examining a number of WiFi options -- from small cells that link to the Internet over Ethernet cable to more standard cellular-style distributed antenna systems. "It depends on the situation," says Shen. "There is no kind of uniform way that we can do this."

It is clear that if Sprint gets close to some of its indoor WiMax aims, the technology could become more of a threat to large-scale WiFi deployments than it has been before. Shen says the operator wants WiMax in-building systems that are "as cheap as the WiFi solution."

Sprint isn't saying yet who some of its suppliers might be for its varied mini-WiMax requirements. "We can't disclose that," Shen says. There are, however, a diverse collection of vendors working on smaller WiMax networking gear -- from Adaptix Inc. to mesh networking firm Tropos Networks Inc. Indoor wireless specialist RadioFrame Networks Inc. has also started to look at WiMax as a transport mechanism. (See Mobile WiMax Takes Fixed Field and Femtocells Gear Up for 3GSM.)

The operator might take a leaf out of the WiFi playbook with regards to funding some of these small-scale deployments. Shen says Sprint has a "flexible business model" when it comes to indoor deployments and may seek out large corporations, conference centers, and shopping malls to "participate in the in-building build-out of WiMax." He likened this to the way that WiFi hotspots can be deployed in such places today. "They could chose to fund that," Shen says.

Sprint's major infrastructure suppliers are putting undisclosed sums towards the initial roll out of the operator's planned $3 billion nationwide WiMax network in the U.S., so some alternative thinking from the operator about funding this network should not be so surprising. Although Shen stresses that the hotspot-like model is "just one option." (See Sprint Picks Nokia for WiMax.)

Nonetheless, he wholeheartedly embraces the idea that Sprint Nextel is thinking differently with this new deployment. "We're not building a WiMax network to be another cellular network," Shen says. "We want it to be the future of the mobile Internet."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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