Fast, Citywide WiFi Launches In Baltimore
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The telecom company Sprint has just rolled out its new wireless Internet service in the city of Baltimore as a first market to try it. It's called WiMax. And unlike other wireless Internet services, this service claims to be faster and to be mobile. You can do it while you are moving. The plan is to take it national if it works in Baltimore. And to find out if it is, we've called Mario Armstrong. He's our technology guru, and Baltimore is his home city. Welcome back to the program, Mario.
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hi Steve, thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: So let me make sure I understand this. Instead of endangering my life by working on the BlackBerry while driving the car, I can now work with my laptop while driving. Is that right?
ARMSTRONG: As long as you're not driving and working on the laptop at the same time.
INSKEEP: But you know people are going to be! You know it's already happening in Baltimore someplace.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ARMSTRONG: You know, I started to do some tests when I purchased the service. And I said, you know, should I start filming now? How would I do this? Put the laptop on the passenger seat, drive, and film, probably not a good idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: So, what did you actually try to do without getting yourself killed?
ARMSTRONG: I pulled the car over on the side of the road and tested the service at various neighborhoods and locations throughout the city of Baltimore.
ARMSTRONG: And I have to say, coverage right now is spotty. Sprint has told me that they have 70 percent of the market saturated. But I can tell you this, when I was in an area that would receive a strong signal, it was blazingly fast. I mean, I haven't really experienced being mobile with this type of speed ever before. I had on two NPR shows, I was watching a live concert on YouStream.tv, and pulled up a TV show on a Web site called Hulu.com. And I was running all of these things at the same time and did not see that network connection degrade.
INSKEEP: And you could bring up these things while parked safely, of course, and then once things were up and running you could start driving and the connection would not go away, at least while you were in that good service area?
ARMSTRONG: That's correct. And so what I ended up having was someone drive me around, to be safe. And the signal would drop from time to time. But as you mentioned, as long as it had the connection in the area where there was a strong connection, it remained on. So it was impressive to see, even at this early stage, that if they were to receive 100 percent throughput throughout the whole city, that in theory you could drive from one city to another as they roll this out nationwide without losing a connection.
INSKEEP: Although, let's be frank. Is that kind of niche market? How many people really need that service?
ARMSTRONG: This is a struggling question, because you have WiFi on the one hand that's already out that people have paid for, although that is a limited fixed location service. You can't really be mobile.
INSKEEP: That's you've got this point, and maybe it works 50 feet away or 100 feet away.
ARMSTRONG: That's correct. I mean, WiMax, one base station gives you a range of about 30 miles. But it's going to take consumers to really adopt this service, and that is at the heart of whether not this will expand. They have plans for Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other places. But Baltimore has become the test bed.
INSKEEP: But let me ask about one possibility here. I'm just thinking about getting beyond a laptop which would be sitting on the car seat. I suppose if my car radio could receive an Internet signal like that, that means I could listen to any radio station in the world, doesn't it?
ARMSTRONG: That's exactly it. This is not just about laptops. This will open up a whole new generation of devices that could be created. I mean, there have been examples of a WiMax-enabled digital camera that could take a photo and you could instantly email that. Or in the case that you just mentioned, a car radio that has a WiMax chip in it would allow you to receive Internet radio broadcasts in your vehicle. So, you're absolutely right. The idea of having faster connectivity more consistently is enabling people from software designers and application designers to start thinking more innovatively about how they could create applications that we may not even think of now.
INSKEEP: Are other companies competing with Sprint for the product that can go national and sweep everybody?
ARMSTRONG: Absolutely, there's big competition here. I mean, there's companies like Verizon who's recently spent $9 billion to build what they're calling their fourth-generation wireless broadband network. So, none of these companies are going to sit idly by watching Sprint roll out WiMax without them paying close attention. I mean, right now Baltimore and WiMax is on a global stage to see how this evolves.
INSKEEP: Mario Armstrong, drive safely please.
ARMSTRONG: Will do, Steve.
INSKEEP: He's our technology guru and also hosts the radio show Digital Cafe on public radio station WYPR. I hope it's online.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is.