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Worst of the Week: A bold look back at the Sprint WiMAX network

WOTW takes a look back at the Sprint WiMAX network, which this week gasped its last breath, but at least here will not be soon forgotten

Hello! And welcome to our Friday column, Worst of the Week. There’s a lot of nutty stuff that goes on in this industry, so this column is a chance for us at RCRWireless.com to rant and rave about whatever rubs us the wrong way. We hope you enjoy it!

And without further ado:

We all knew it was bound to happen, some probably even before it ever began, but this week finally witnessed Sprint shutter its seminal WiMAX network.

The process had been in the works for years, with the last few months taken up by legal obligations to maintain the network in order to provide time for a few partners to transition a few remaining customers, but March 31 marked the official end of Sprint’s WiMAX efforts.

Not to get too teary eyed over the whole process, but I think it’s probably worth a moment or two to ponder the impact the Sprint WiMAX network had on the telecom landscape. This might be painful for some.

Most would link Sprint’s WiMAX decision back to its acquisition of Nextel Communications, which wrapped in 2005, and brought with it a significant load of 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses with specific build out dates. Nextel prior to being acquired had been testing various IP-based mobile broadband technologies, including various proprietary ones like Flash-OFDM and TDD-UMTS, as well as WiMAX and HSDPA.

Now, looking back at those selections, one notable acronym missing is LTE, as what has become the mobile broadband standard was not really an option when Sprint and Nextel were looking for a technology that could see worldwide acceptance. Imagine what Sprint could have been if the timing was just a bit different.

Sprint’s early hype for its WiMAX network began back in 2007, with the company trotting out the Xohm brand under former CEO Gary Forsee. The early demos promised mobile broadband speeds up to 10 megabits per second; showed various products embedded with WiMAX radios; and more importantly claimed the service would provide up to $2.5 billion in revenues by 2010, generate free cash flow by 2011, and would cost the carrier $5 billion in capital expense to cover approximately 125 million potential customers. The world was Sprint’s oyster!

Showing that it was indeed king of the world, Sprint figured it’s WiMAX network was so much better than those lame 3G networks running around it dumped the Xohm brand and thrust the term “4G” into the cellular marketing world. Of course, WiMAX was nowhere near offering performance promised by true 4G standards, but when you are first on the field, you get to make up the marketing rules.

It should also be noted that soon-to-be-acquired Clearwire was at the same time working its own WiMAX angle, tapping into basically the remaining 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses not controlled by Sprint.

Sprint continued pumping billions of dollars into its WiMAX project, while across the technology aisle LTE was gaining momentum. Never one to back down from a network fight, Verizon Wireless in 2007 said it would use LTE as its next-generation strategy, and took Sprint’s lead by also throwing the 4G tag into the mix.

Verizon Wireless eventually launched its LTE service in late 2010, providing at least a 4G marketing rival to Sprint’s 4G efforts, and more importantly quickly matched and surpassed Sprint’s 4G network coverage. In addition to losing what was becoming a significant marketing tag, Sprint around the same time also began its $5 billion Network Vision program, which while likely something that needed to be done, now looks like it was handled in a most careless manner.

While WiMAX may have been doomed from the start, it’s commercial demise in the domestic market began in 2011, when Sprint said it would introduce LTE technology onto its network, with initial plans to run both LTE and WiMAX side-by-side, though using different spectrum. Quickly, all WiMAX spending was diverted to LTE, with the legacy network frozen at around 130 million pops covered at its peak.

And now, here we are five years later and Sprint’s WiMAX escapade has come to an end. It’s easy to see that if a few things had broken differently, the Sprint and WiMAX marriage could have swept both to a lofty peak enjoyed today by other carriers and other technology. But, it was obviously not meant to be.

Both are not dead, they have just been pushed to the side. WiMAX still has a foothold as a fixed broadband technology in a number of markets, with the technology’s specifications being used in various industries. Heck, there’s still a vibrant WiMAX community and the WiMAX Forum continues to tout progress.

As for Sprint, well it obviously learned a lot from WiMAX in terms of propagation challenges using the 2.5 GHz spectrum band (wait, you want coverage above the third floor and inside a building?) and specific infrastructure requirements needed to support mobile broadband. Hindsight would obviously show Sprint’s move with WiMAX was not the right call, but then again it wasn’t the only questionable decision made by Sprint over the past decade.

Nearly 10 years ago, we wrote a column entitled “WhyMax” that seemed to cast doubt on the future of WiMAX. Looking back now, I would amend that column to say: “WhyMax, WhyNot.”

Thanks for checking out this week’s Worst of the Week column. Now, here are a few videos to ponder:

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