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This Week in WiMax

4:25 PM -- This week in WiMax, here are the big issues, as I see them:

LAS VEGAS -- With a big splashy press event this week at CES, Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) unveiled its plan for bringing WiMax into the mainstream, introducing a small, slick, easy-to-use, portable WiMax/WiFi modem that should hold crossover appeal for business and personal use.

Called the Overdrive and made by Sierra Wireless Inc. (Nasdaq: SWIR; Toronto: SW), the box is just slightly wider and heavier than the similar 3G-only "MiFi" devices from Novatel Wireless Inc. (Nasdaq: NVTL). But the Overdrive packs a lot more bandwidth and horsepower into its black plastic package, making it well worth the extra weight and size, especially for those who desire the faster speeds a WiMax connection can bring.

The specifics on pricing and availability aren't the real kicker on the Overdrive. (Residents in any of the 27 Sprint/Clearwire 4G cities can buy the Overdrive next week for about $99 for the device itself, and $59.99 per month for the data plan.) What makes this entry sing are its ease of use and its big-time backing from both Sprint and reseller partner Best Buy, which says it will help promote the Overdrive with well-informed store associates touting its virtues at a select list of about 182 locations.

Unlike other WiMax/WiFi options, which require hands-on assembly of inserting a USB modem into a mobile router -- a relatively simple, yet annoying, complication -- the Overdrive has a WiMax modem as well as a 3G modem embedded inside. The only control is an on/off button; and in some challenging testing (Sprint was kind enough to lend us an Overdrive for evaluation here at CES) the Overdrive worked like a charm, delivering a WiMax-to-WiFi signal even deep inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, where other industry journalists were whining about their own poor 3G or WiFi connectivity.

By passing the no-need-for-manual test, the Overdrive is the kind of thing that's simple for store folks to explain -- instead of having to talk about how to get it to work, they can say things like "just turn it on and any five WiFi devices within range can start surfing the Internet at 4G speeds." That's the kind of get-to-the-point leap that makes its use easy to understand for home or business needs.

While Sprint probably won't bring CES party pitchmen Frank Caliendo and Mario Batali to each and every Overdrive market, the company's willingness to shell out the big bucks for a splashy CES event and the follow-on mass media marketing could make the Overdrive the first big device to really grab the mainstream attention for WiMax and 4G.

Plugfest
Need to know more about Clearwire and WiMax? Our second version of the Clearwire NTK report, which covers Clearwire events from June through September, costs less than a large beer at the local Sprint Nascar race. Just $4.95 at the Sidecut store. Also available for the Kindle. Available now for free download is our WiMax Business Deployment Guide.

— Paul Kapustka is the founder and editor of Sidecut Reports, a WiMax analysis site and research service. He can be reached at [email protected]. Special to Unstrung.

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