Following speculation amongst various industry insiders, Sprint Nextel made it official late last week that Nokia will be the new supplier for its 4G mobile WiMAX network rollout.

Set to be part of Sprint Nextel’s mobile WiMAX roll out later this year, Nokia, will provide both network access devices and network infrastructure.

Nokia joins a well-known cast of mobile device and infrastructure characters, including Motorola and Samsung for network infrastructure and devices, while Intel will develop WiMAX silicon.

While it could be said that Nokia is a Johnny-come-lately to the WiMAX network infrastructure game, the deal with Sprint helps to validate its Flexi WiMAX base station vision for WiMAX.

As its name suggests, the Flexi WiMAX BTS offers service providers a number of deployment options. In addition to support for multiple radio technologies (GSM/EDGE, UMTS and WiMAX), the Flexi BTS can support outside and indoor network implementations. This approach translates into overall opex savings.

“The Flexi WiMAX BTS helps to keep costs to a minimum,” said Mark Slater, vice president, Nokia Networks. “Because these devices are smaller and consume less power, it enables a service provider to deploy WiMAX where it wants.”

But the Nokia deal is not just about base station network infrastructure alone. Advocating an end-to-end solutions approach, Nokia will provide necessary network infrastructure, including the Flexi WiMAX BTS, in addition to WiMAX devices (traditional phones and Internet tablets) and co-developing mobile WiMAX services.

“This complements Nokia’s overall offering from a One Nokia position to being able to provide end-to-end solutions from the infrastructure and device side, Nokia has committed to developing devices that have WiMAX in them to support the open Internet model that Sprint is choosing to utilize for this WiMAX network,” said Chris Staley, vice president, Multimedia for Nokia.

And it’s that bigger picture that will be key, says Phil Solis Principal Analyst, Mobile Broadband of ABI Research.

“It’s a little bit surprising that Sprint Nextel went with Nokia given that Nokia jumped more seriously into WiMAX more seriously after Sprint announced they were using WiMAX, but it’s not surprising because Sprint is aligning itself up with vendors that can provide the whole ecosystem,” explains Solis. “It’s all well and good to build out a network but if there’s no devices to use it, or limited devices to use it then it’s not as important.”

Solis added that Nokia, which joins a well-rounded who’s who list of handset vendors, including Motorola and Samsung that will support WiMAX devices, would be an important element to drive support for a wide diversity of mobile devices.

“One of the important things about Nokia is that Sprint now has the top three handset vendors lined up to provide devices, including cell phones and also consumer electronics,” said Solis. “As far as supporting WiMAX in the handset, customers will have choices among a variety of handsets, and they won’t be stuck with one vendor, which is important to Sprint Nextel for pricing reasons and variety.”

An Ambitious Plan

If anything, Sprint Nextel’s WiMAX plan is nothing short of ambitious. Unlike the late 1990s fixed wireless drive that was focused on providing a fixed wireless DSL-like service, Sprint’s mobile WiMAX initiative is much more broader in its scope. Along with providing a mobile broadband experience that utilizes its 2.5 GHz spectrum assets, Sprint Nextel is forming a mobile business ecosystem to help spread adoption of mobile WiMAX devices and services.

Last August, Sprint Nextel announced an ambitious plan to make WiMAX its 4G wireless network technology of choice, which will leverage the company’s well-entrenched 2.5 GHz spectrum assets that it acquired during the late 1990s.

Sprint Nextel’s commitment to mobile WiMAX is quite comprehensive. The service provider has committed to invest up to $800 million this year and approximately $1.5 to $2 billion in 2008 for the mobile WiMAX network. After it launches the mobile WiMAX service in a few initial markets by the end of this year, Sprint Nextel is confident its service can reach an estimated 100 million potential subscribers by the end of 2008.

“We enter 2007, the year of our history-making WiMAX service launch, as the broadband mobility leader,” remarked Barry West, president, 4G Mobile Broadband in a recent statement. “Our next generation network plans have catalyzed the industry, and momentum behind our mobility vision grows with increasing technology adoption.”

Service Continuity

While mobile WiMAX is the long-term vision, in the near-term, one of the more important aspects of the service will be in its ability to provide seamless coverage between the new WiMAX network and the existing CDMA EVDO network.

Similar to how users on the EVDO network can default to a 1XRTT network connection when they step outside the EVDO range, Sprint Nextel will provide the same experience for the mobile WiMAX user. If a user goes outside the range of a mobile WiMAX base station, the user will be defaulted back to Sprint’s EVDO Rev A network.

“When Sprint builds out this [mobile WiMAX] network, the initial focus will be on major dense urban areas, so the ability to fall back to EVDO Rev A when a user goes outside the range of the WiMAX network with a dual mode EVDO/mobile WiMAX device will be critical,” said Solis.