Sprint’s Xohm Network is Only Half Open

Today marks the formal launch of Sprint’s Xohm network, and celebrants are gathered in Baltimore to show off their new WiMAX-enabled gadgets. But after chatting with an executive from Lenovo, I wonder just how open Sprint’s network will be, and how that lack of true openness might slow the adoption of WiMAX.

Lenovo is on hand showing of its five laptops designed for Sprint’s WiMAX network, including the super-sleek x300 that competes with the MacBook Air. David Critchley, worldwide segment manager with Lenovo, said the x300 was supposed to launch last spring with WiMAX inside, but Sprint’s delays nixed that plan. Critchley expected that Lenovo would have the most WiMAX enabled products ready to launch today, in part because it had been preparing for WiMAX for so long, enabling it to get hardware ready in time for testing. He called Sprint’s testing pipeline “narrow,” and expected others to only have one or two devices ready for launch.

Wait. Testing? This is supposed to be an open network ready for any device. Now I’m worried that Sprint’s approval process will keep WiMAX from becoming as popular as Wi-Fi. Isn’t that how Verizon is supposedly going to keep its network from becoming entirely open? Maybe it’s the difference in operating on unlicensed spectrum as Wi-Fi does, or licensed as WiMAX does, but getting as many devices as possible on the network will be key for WiMAX success.

A bottleneck caused by Sprint’s testing isn’t going to help grow the number of gadgets and consumer awareness rapidly. As an executive over at Motorola told me, WiMAX is likely to win out when (a) it’s seamless and easy for consumers to access and (b) carriers make it easy for WiMAX devices to hop on and off their networks. An approval process makes both less likely, especially if it moves slowly.