Is Sprint Nextel WiMAX competing with Wi-Fi?

Sprint Nextel’s announcement that they will offer wireless Internet service in Minneapolis by May 2008 has everyone asking: will it really compete with the city’s Wi-Fi service? Sprint Nextel recently announced that they’ll be offering wireless Internet service in the Minneapolis downtown area in May 2008 and that their mobile WiMAX system will compete with Minneapolis’ citywide Wi-Fi network that will be in operation by then. Sprint is also in the process of rolling out similar WiMAX services in 19 U.S. cities. WiMAX will likely play a big role in supporting wireless access to the Internet, but I’m not convinced that the WiMAX network Sprint is installing will offer significant competition to Wi-Fi for at least several years or more.

With a municipal Wi-Fi network already in place, it’s not likely that the Sprint WiMAX network will provide a feasible alternative for municipal applications, such as wireless meter reading and public safety applications. The Sprint WiMAX service will obviously require subscription fees, and the municipality will already be getting relatively good wireless connectivity from the existing Wi-Fi network. There may be some specialized applications that could benefit from WiMAX, but the costs of going beyond using the existing Wi-Fi system will probably not make good economic sense. I visualize more of long-term migration from Wi-Fi to WiMAX taking place in this case.

For public users, where I believe Sprint is specifically targeting, there may certainly be some advantages in accessing the Internet through Sprint’s system. This is highly dependent on the service being widely available wherever the user roams, though, which likely includes a host of other cities.

Before getting too excited about Sprint’s mobile WiMAX, we must also keep in mind, that millions of public users already have Wi-Fi interfaces in their client devices, such as laptops, and Wi-Fi networks are available in most hotels, airports, and cities. With all of this in mind, I feel that Wi-Fi will likely be under great demand for years to come.

The Sprint WiMAX system will probably offer performance benefits over Wi-Fi. For example, the Sprint system makes use of licensed frequencies, so that potential for radio frequency interference from other wireless systems is relatively low. At some point, users may be encouraged to purchase WiMAX radios and make use of WiMAX networks, but it’s difficult at this point to say when that will really happen. I don’t think that a little more performance is going to make a huge difference. The pricing that Sprint offers will have to be very attractive to offset the costs of purchasing a WiMAX radio, and the availability of WiMAX service will need to be available in areas comparable to or better than Wi-Fi.

By the way, these are my initial thoughts. Please chime in and let us know what you’re thinking. I also plan to follow-up this story after talking with Sprint and some of the municipalities regarding this topic.

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Jim Geier is an independent consultant and founder of Wireless-Nets, Ltd (, a consulting firm assisting municipalities, enterprises, hospitals, airports, and equipment providers with the development and deployment of wireless networks.


  1. Michael Blossom says

    Good thoughts – I think you are pretty much correct. We continue to revisit this topic on a continual basis, to determine when or if it makes sense to include WiMAX as a communication offering in our application (AMR). It’s hard to tell most days exactly what WiMAX wants to be when it grows up.

    Cellular 2G & 3G solutions, with their licensed frequencies and wide coverage footprints, already offer good fixed/nomadic/mobile data solutions for many applications – albeit at a high price point, with limited throughput, and with carrier-imposed limits on devices and applications.

    As long as WiFi continues to expand its push as a low-cost, open, high-speed, device-agnostic, fixed/nomadic (and maybe short-range/limited area mobile?) solution, it’s hard to see where WiMAX will be able to supplant either of them in the near future. I think it will find a place, no doubt, I’m just not convinced it can overcome the proliferation and ever-expanding ubiquity of WiFi and cellular.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see widespread low-cost WiMAX networks offering cellular range and coverage along with the openness and speed of WiFi. I’m just not yet convinced that Sprint shares that vision.

  2. I love that “short-range/limited area mobile” comment. That so outlines the larger hope of grid wireless networks. I went ahead and bit the bullet and signed up for the two year deal with Verizon for broadband and it’s just really nice. I can use it wheeling down the road on a bus if I’d like. That mobile aspect will be the selling point for any Sprint/Nextel offered system – not necessarily the features or even the costs. If you buck up for one of these connections you also get relative consistent service anywhere you go. Anywhere your cell phone works, that is. That’s a preferable solution to being at the mercy of “Lord only knows” wireless. Admittedly, my experience with these wireless WiFi networks is relegated largely to airports and maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m unable to get anything that’s reliable with these systems. Maybe airports are a bad tool to measure the development of these networks???

  3. The key to success for Sprint, Clearwire or any other provider of 4G technology is interoperability and or convergence with existing networks.

    WiMAX must play well with all the 2.5G, 3G and WLAN services. Why? These technologies are already entrenched in our minds and current machines and Verizon, T-Mobile, Cingular have invested much into their networks and will provide a migration to 4G with other WiMAX like technologies.

    I think both standards have a fit and hope the Service Providers see the hybrid-interoperability concept benefits.

    WiMAX-mobile (802.16e) is going to be a great technology for the mobile professional who needs a constant connection. Much like the newer cellular broadband technologies like EVDO and HSDPA.

    There are some willing to pay for secure, reliable connectivity at a premium. They need to provide their employees a means to reach back to the office on public networks they can trust.

    However with standards like 802.11n on the horizon, WiMAX will have to play nice.

    Then again, the VCR made way for the DVD, which made room for the MP3 and iPOD. Go figure?