Sprint announces first 4G phone, looks toward other devices

The company is angling to jump ahead of the competition and has its eyes on tablet devices next

Sprint announced its first 4G phone, HTC's Evo 4G, on Wednesday in New York, and plans to extend that mobile technology into devices with larger screens such as tablet computers.

The phone will be available starting June 4 in the U.S. for $199 with a two-year contract.

In an interview before the company event announcing the phone, David Owens, Sprint's vice president of consumer marketing, declined to name the partners Sprint is working with on tablet computing devices or provide a time frame for availability, but he said that products are under development.

Sprint competitors such as AT&T currently provide the slower 3G mobile broadband technology for tablet computers, including Apple's iPad. Verizon stated it was developing a tablet with Google, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. The tablet could be released early next year after Verizon's 4G network is deployed.

The next step for Sprint after the Evo 4G is to embed 4G chipsets in tablets as well as, for example, in-car and medical devices, the company said.

Sprint's 4G network is based on WiMax mobile broadband technology, which provides fast data-transfer rates over a wider area than Wi-Fi. Sprint's WiMax network can deliver around 10M bps (bits per second) in download speed, company officials said at the event where they announced the 4G phone.

But Sprint has to get an early jump over its rivals, which are moving toward 4G networks, too. Verizon Wireless has said it will deploy its 4G Long-Term Evolution network in 25 to 30 markets later this year. The network will deliver between 5M bps and 12M bps downstream, and between 2M bps and 5M bps upstream.

Sprint currently offers 4G connectivity in 32 U.S. cities and has plans to expand that by year's end to more cities, reaching 120 million potential customers.

"The promise of 4G is a lower-cost chipset and faster speed. You're seeing that come to life," Owens said.

Packaging more bandwidth with 4G in devices like tablets will resonate better with customers than 3G, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"Tablet probably stresses the bandwidth more than other devices as there is more screen real estate," Kay said. "I see tablet being adopted only after bandwidth is built out."

There are some applications that go well with 3G, but as tablets become rich in graphics capabilities, there will be demand for richer media content, Kay said.

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