WiMax finally launches in the U.S., sorta

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Herndon (VA) – WiMax, often also described as 4G wireless broadband, is out of the gate. It is almost one year late, it is only available in the Baltimore region, it is - as expected – not cheap and the service offering is everything else than clear. The question is: Will consumers bite?

The technology that promises to turn the entire globe into one big hotspot is making its first showing today in Baltimore. After months of delays, financial troubles of Sprint and its WiMax unit Xohm, the rollout of the wireless broadband technology has begun. However, the launch isn’t particularly overwhelming and if you aren’t particularly excited about the Xohm network, you may find yourself trying to find answers to questions that surround your existing DSL/cable broadband service, mobile coverage as well as service prices and roaming charges.

Here is an overview of what you can expect initially.

The service

WiMax essentially works as Wi-Fi with a much greater range that would allow you to travel for miles away from a service area without losing your Internet connectivity. Xohm has not provided exact bandwidth speeds for the service and surprisingly, the initial service offering does not include a tiered service model as initially indicated. However, the connection speeds should be comparable to basic DSL/cable service, which would refer to download speeds of 768 Kb/s and 1.5 Mb/s, the provider said.

The company also said there are “high-performance” levels with 2 – 4 Mb/s download speeds and a 512 Kb/s – 1.5 MB/s upload speed. The numbers were retrieved using network speed tests and are, you guessed it, not guaranteed.    


Coverage

Network coverage is the big downside of WiMax at this time. Xohm promises to roll out the service quickly across the country with metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. apparently in the near future. But for now, you can get WiMax only in Baltimore, which makes it just another broadband technology in Baltimore at this time. The mobility is clearly very limited and if you are looking for a permanent Internet connection while travelling in the U.S., this is not what you want purchase, at least not yet.

Hardware you need to buy

Xohm promises that it will be offering a wide variety of WiMax modems and access cards soon. The only products available at this time is a $80 modem, which you will need to buy if you want to replace your broadband service at home with a WiMax service and a $60 ExpressCard you will need for your notebook to access WiMax service.  Both products are not subsidized by Xohm, which means that you own the hardware right away and you won’t have to agree to any long-term service agreements.

WiMax pricing

Xohm is offering four different usage models with different prices. Depending on your view, the prices are reasonable or expensive, but we are pretty sure that the models will not be entirely clear to everybody right away. Why? Because Xohm decided to differentiate between a stationary WiMax service, which is a paradox in itself, and a mobile service.

Customers will be able to choose from a $10 per-day service, a $25-per-month home Internet service, a $30 mobile service and the option to pick any two in a “Pick 2 for Life” option (we wonder which two that could be?) for $50 per month.

You could be a bit confused why you would purchase a separate home Internet service with the “Pick 2 for Life” option when you have access to the network through the mobile service anyway. But here is the critical difference: The home Internet service connects to a router and allows you to connect any Internet device at home via Wi-Fi to the Internet. The mobile service is limited to one ExpressCard – and therefore one user.   

Granted, the mobility will increase over time and the plan may appear somewhat cheap, but there are clear concerns on the horizon: What about Internet services at home that will require higher connection speeds, such as IPTV or video streaming? What if more family members want to use the WiMax service while travelling? Will the cost be an additional $30 per month or will Xohm, which has no competition in this country, have enough reasons to be offer “family plans”?

These are unanswered questions as are the roaming charges that will be applied to your monthly bill when you tap into another provider’s network.       


Conclusion

The roll out of WiMax is your typical early adopter scenario. In our opinion, it is reasonably priced, but its downside is clearly the overall coverage, which will remain the main drawback of the technology for years to come. Plus, there are some pricing issues in the details and the lack of competition may not be a great catalyst to bring prices down quickly.

If you are looking for uninterrupted wireless broadband coverage, WiMax is not an option yet.