Sprint makes a case for enterprise WiMAX

Mobile video conferencing will be the 'killer app'

Although Sprint may be having trouble getting enough HTC EVO 4G phones out the door quickly, there can be no doubt that the carrier's 4G WiMAX network is the fastest game in town.

Can Sprint afford a WiMAX flop?

With initial tests registering average data speeds between 2.5Mbps and 4Mbps, Sprint's WiMAX network easily outpaces its rivals' 3G networks and will likely continue to do so until Verizon launches its 4G LTE services over the next year. This increased speed has obvious appeal to consumers who want to stream high-definition video easily over their mobile phones and use high-bandwidth applications. But if you're a business owner, what's in it for you?

According to Sprint, there's quite a bit. The big application that 4G enables is mobile video conferencing that can let workers stream video of themselves without needing a wireline connection. Jeff Adelmann, Sprint's director of device and 4G marketing, says that the added mobility of video conferencing over WiMAX allows users to deploy a high-speed connection to the Web more rapidly than if they have to rely on wireline connections. Eventually, he thinks that as WiMAX connection speeds increase and as the service becomes more ubiquitous, business customers will use WiMAX to replace their wireline services and simply go with a wireless network as their main way to connect to the Web.

"I think having one carrier manage all their data services will greatly simplify things for them," he says. "So let's say you're H&R Block and you want to deploy a kiosk during tax season in a location that's pretty remote. With a 4G connection you can set it up in minute, whereas it could take weeks to deploy a wireline connection there."

The ability to rapidly deploy a wireless broadband connection can help with applications besides mobile business conferencing, of course. Brent Kohman, Sprint's 4G marketing manager, notes that high-speed wireless broadband also provides great flexibility for surveillance systems and e-health services to quickly go up and come down wherever they're needed. 

As an example he cites what the Annapolis Police Department has done using a WiMAX-enabled camera that is being used in areas that are far away from the center of Annapolis and thus can't provide connectivity to cameras that are hooked up to city fiber infrastructure via Wi-Fi connections. He also says that some construction companies have found WiMAX-enabled cameras to be very convenient since they can easily set them up at various construction sites without having to worry about having wireline infrastructure in the area.

"We're finding that for construction companies, using video surveillance can offer jobsite security at a very low cost from what it delivered in the past," he says. "We can implement it and it takes us an hour to do. What's more, it can be moved pretty easily."

Still more work to be done

But while Sprint's WiMAX offerings do present businesses with some enticing benefits and features, the company admits that it still has more work to do to meet every enterprise's demand for a high-speed wireless network. For one thing, Sprint's WiMAX coverage is far from ubiquitous, especially if you live in a rural area. By year-end, Sprint's partners at Clearwire will have built out a WiMAX network that spans all major U.S. markets and that covers 120 million POPs. This means that you'll be able to get WiMAX coverage if you're located in a city but you'll still be out of luck if you have branch offices in rural locations.

The good news as far as this goes is that Sprint is now starting to push out its dual-mode wireless cards that allow users to connect to Sprint's 3G and 4G networks. And what's more, they can then utilize Sprint's Overdrive mobile hotspot to connect up to five devices at once to Sprint's 3G and 4G networks via Wi-Fi.

"We recognizing that 4G is not ubiquitous yet," Adelmann says. "So users can leverage 4G services if they need them but they also have 3G as a backup, and the whole package costs the same as our competitors are charging for 3G-only mobile hotspots."

Another issue that Sprint is working on is adding more enterprise features to its 4G-capable handsets such as the EVO 4G and the Epic 4G, both of which run on Google's popular Android mobile operating system. Google has been doing its part in recent upgrades to the Android platform, as Android 2.2 will give administrators the ability to enforce password policies across Android devices and to remotely wipe any Android devices that become lost or compromised. Android 2.2 will also support Exchange Calendars and auto-discovery to make it easier for users to set up and sync Exchange accounts.

Even so, Adelman recognizes that a lot more needs to be done if Sprint's Android-based WiMAX devices are going to be used widely as enterprise devices. The big need is to have a VPN client already installed onto the phones similar to what Apple's iPhone currently has with Cisco's VPN client. Adelman won't commit to a timetable of when WiMAX devices on Sprint's network would have VPN access but says that he has "confidence that Google will make advances toward it."

In addition to VPN access, Adelman also says that Sprint's WiMAX phones will need other tools that will give IT departments more control over the devices, including encryption capabilities and virus protection that will protect corporate networks from breaches or malware.

"Handsets are just becoming another endpoint on enterprise networks," he says. "And companies want to be able to manage these endpoints just like they would a PC or a laptop."

Learn more about this topic

Can Sprint afford a WiMAX flop?

Sprint's WiMAX network helping Maryland police

The state of 4G in 2010

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