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Ben Charny


Nextel Communications says it no longer considers wireless wunderkind WiMax a future option for mobile broadband service, a rare blow to a technology backed by major tech heavyweights.

The reason? Among others, WiMax isn’t yet ready for the rigors of delivering broadband to people on the move. Also, Nextel spokesman Aaron Radelet said Tuesday, the carrier doesn’t have access to the appropriate spectrum for WiMax. That’s why the nation’s fifth-largest cell phone service provider favors either the same cell phone equipment Verizon Communications now uses to sell broadband in 20 major markets, or even faster but lesser-known wireless equipment using Flarion Technologies’ FLASH-OFDM technology, a spokesman for the carrier said.

WiMax is radio technology that promises two-way Internet access at several megabits per second, with ranges of several miles. Backers of the technology believe it can challenge DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable broadband services because it offers similar speeds but costs carriers less to set up, since installation doesn’t require roads to be torn up.

The technology is expected to be particularly useful for getting broadband service to remote areas economically or physically out of reach of conventional wired networks, but Nextel says it won’t be adequate for devices on the move.

“What Nextel is looking for is a mobile solution. Mobility won’t be built into the WiMax standard for another couple of years,” said Kendra Petrone, a spokeswoman for the WiMax Forum, which represents commercial WiMax interests. “Nextel is pushing ahead and not waiting for WiMax.”

Nextel’s decision is a reminder that while WiMax holds great promise and has broad industry support from the likes of Cisco Systems, Intel, Fujitsu Microelectronics America and others, it’s still in the early stages of development, and that services based on the technology probably won’t be available until the end of next year.

Regardless of its technology choice, Nextel Communications expects to have a nationwide wireless broadband network in place by late 2006, at the earliest, leaving it badly trailing its competitors. Cell phone service providers have spent billions of dollars building high-speed wireless networks so that they can sell new services such as high-speed Web access, network gaming and wireless access to office e-mails. The carriers are trying to find new sources of revenue because of a competition-driven plunge in the price of their main product: phone calls.

Verizon Wireless already has 70,000 wireless broadband subscribers and plans to double the number of areas where BroadbandAccess is available by the end of 2005. Nextel will also be competing with AT&T Wireless, which has a wireless broadband network in six cities and Sprint, which intends to launch high-speed Net services in two Midwest cities by year’s end.