WiMax to slash device time-to-market

For today's cellular networks, it typically takes six to eight weeks for a carrier to certify a handset or other device for use on its network and an additional four to six weeks to finally approve it for sale, said Prakash Kripalani, a wireless marketing executive in Intel's WiMax Ecosystem group. By contrast, the WiMax Forum industry group will take a major role in approving components and devices, making things easier for operators and ultimately cutting time to market down to about a month, he said.

Makers of cell phones and other mobile devices have long complained that carrier approval processes create a bottleneck in getting innovative gear out to consumers. Last December, Palm cited delays in carrier approval of a key product as one factor leading to a revenue shortfall and loss in its fiscal third quarter.

The approval process will be significantly different for mobile WiMax, the high-speed wireless system emerging as a successor to 3G in some areas, according to Intel. By concentrating the approval of new client hardware in the WiMax Forum, a group modeled somewhat on the Wi-Fi Alliance, WiMax backers hope to cut out duplicative efforts by carriers, Kripalani said.

For devices aimed at Sprint Nextel's U.S. WiMax network that is set to launch starting next month, Intel will go one step further. Along with Sprint itself, the chip maker will “pre-certify” communications modules to smooth their path through Forum certification, Kripalani said. The earliest tests of mobile modules at the WiMax Forum have taken about four weeks, including one-time troubleshooting, he said. Granted, Intel and Sprint's pre-certification still takes six to eight weeks, but the companies expect to shorten that process considerably, he said.

For the next year or so, Sprint will continue testing new devices itself, but after the carrier is comfortable with the WiMax Forum's process, it will rely mostly on the group's testing, Kripalani said. Ultimately, new hardware should get certified within a week or two and carriers will accept the devices for their networks in two to four weeks, depending on the type of device, Intel believes.

With WiMax, Sprint is steering away from the typical U.S. practice of carriers selling devices themselves. Gear for its WiMax network will be sold by manufacturers in retail stores. Given that difference and Sprint's huge bet on WiMax, that carrier might be able to achieve faster approvals, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupitermedia. It's an attractive idea, given that products today often take two to six months to reach the market, he said. But Gartenberg is skeptical about the broader implications.

“The real question is, longer term, will carriers cede control?” Gartenberg said. “I think the answer is no.”

Those who want to use Sprint's new WiMax network should start to see some Sprint-approved laptops in October, according to Kripalani. The network is scheduled to launch first in Baltimore, then in Washington, D.C., and Chicago by the end of this year. In 2009, it will launch in Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. A deal that will merge Sprint's WiMax business into a joint venture with Clearwire is expected to be approved by the end of this year. Clearwire has said it expects to launch mobile WiMax in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Oregon, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, by year's end.

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