Sprint: 4G WiMax Plans 'Full-Speed Ahead,' Despite Verizon LTE

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Verizon claimed the 4G wireless technology spotlight this week, using the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to affirm that it will roll out its Long Term Evolution 4G network in the United States in 2010.

But executives from Sprint-Nextel, which in its combined 4G business with Clearwire is the most prominent backer of LTE rival technology WiMax, are hardly backing down.

Neither Verizon's LTE plans nor Sprint's shaky fourth-quarter earnings performance are going to derail continued WiMax rollout in the United States, a Sprint spokesperson said.

After all, the telecommunications giant said, it was first to the 4G party in the U.S. and has a sizable head start on LTE.

"Right now, we're the first and only national carrier in 4G with our service in Baltimore," said Stephanie Vinge-Walsh, a Sprint Nextel spokesperson. "It's a live network. WiMax is a great bet and we have complete confidence in WiMax. What we saw announced the other day [Verizon's plans] was a validation of our vision from two years ago to bring 4G to this industry."

Vinge-Walsh said Sprint had great faith in its WiMax offerings -- which already include the first dual-mode 3G/4G USB modem -- and its ability to maintain an "extremely robust" 3G network while 4G capability proliferates in the coming years.

"Looking to the future, this is something we announced quite a while ago, and something we're really excited about now and going forward," Vinge-Walsh said. "We have plans for single-mode for phones and for embedded devices, and we see an incredible amount of interest in what we're bringing to market now. What it offers -- the type of bandwidth it offers, the speed it offers -- it's here now."

Despite the WiMax Forum's insistence that WiMax presence is in more than 135 countries serving 430 million customers -- and industry leaders such as Intel's Executive Vice President Sean Maloney championing WiMax's two- to three-year lead over LTE deployment -- there have been plenty of stumbling blocks for WiMax in the United States.

Clearwire, for example, had previously suggested that WiMax networks in Washington, D.C., and Chicago would both be live by the end of 2008, though neither came to pass.

Sprint-Nextel and Clearwire closed a $14.5 billion merger deal on Dec. 1 to combine their respective 4G wireless businesses -- an agreement that included $3.2 billion from a list of other investors (comprising Comcast, Intel, Google, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks) and generally thought to be the saving grace of Sprint and Clearwire's WiMax efforts.

Baltimore became the first U.S. city to receive a full-on WiMax rollout from Sprint and Clearwire last fall, and in January, Clearwire rolled out WiMax capability in Portland. Ore., for which Sprint will begin offering plans in the spring.

According to Clearwire, the open WiMax network provides average download speeds of 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo and others have all said they were planning Intel Centrino 2-powered notebooks with embedded WiMax.

Intel and Sprint were early backers of WiMax, where Verizon and AT&T seem to have thrown in their lot with LTE. While both 4G technologies promise unprecedented download speeds way faster than current cellular networks, among several differences, WiMax is based on an IEEE standard (802.16), and LTE is proprietary.

"We will be rolling out Sprint 4G [to Portland] in the spring," Vinge-Walsh said. "We will be announcing more markets this year and some more next year, and continue to roll them out as planned."

Questions remain about Sprint Nextel's financial struggles. The Overland, Kan.-based company reported Thursday that 1.3 million subscribers had dropped its wireless service in its fiscal fourth quarter -- part of a 14 percent decline in revenue for the country's No. 3 wireless carrier.

By contrast, AT&T added 2.1 million in the fourth quarter alone and Verizon, the No. 1 wireless carrier, added 1.4 million. For the entirety of 2008, Sprint lost 4.5 million customers.

Sprint Nextel President and CEO Daniel R. Hesse pointed out that new flat-rate monthly plans and handset devices -- including the Palm Pre -- would help Sprint in the new year, and also said Sprint had enough cash on hand to meet debt-service requirements through the end of 2010.

"We are operating better entering 2009, but we have yet to turn the corner," said Hesse on the company's earnings call Thursday.

Vinge-Walsh insisted that Sprint's gloomy earnings report wouldn't stymie its 4G plans one bit.

"Not in any way," she said. "We are looking forward to more improvements. It's full-speed ahead."

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