In January 2008 we heralded the Sprint WiMax network (“Winner: Sprint's Broadband Gamble”). A lot's changed since then (see this January's “4G in the U.S.A.”) but one thing hasn't. At the time we said the network promised to be the most open in the world. We described Sprint's business model as “A new cellular service will sell high-speed data access instead of phones and phone calls.”
That vision apparently hasn't changed. This week at CES the company unveiled the Overdrive, a sort of portable Wi-Fi router for 4G users. The idea of the Overdrive is this: Your plug the Overdrive (via USB) into your laptop, which itself is on the Internet via the 4G network. Up to 5 users can connect to the Overdrive via Wi-Fi, just as they might connect to the Wi-Fi router in your home. The $99 Overdrive, which is actually made by Sierra Wireless, is smaller than a pack of cigarettes.
As a Wi-Fi router, the Overdrive is fantastic, but not new. Sprint had an earlier box, the MiFi, which did the same for Sprint's 3G network (the Overdrive will connect to the older and larger 3G network if the 4G network, which still only exists in 20-odd cities, can't be found).
But the Overdrive has some other nice features as well. It has 32 GB of storage, which your 5 users can access. An activity screen on the laptop shows things like the cellular signal strength, the number of users connected, whether GPS is active (so that your users can be located by Google Maps and the like) and how much storage is being used. An admin screen lets you assign MAC addresses, create passwords — all the things you can do with your home router.
Back in 2008 I speculated that some subscribers might use the WiMax network as their exclusive broadband provider, in the home as well as outside. The Overdrive goes a long way to making that home experience as similar to, and as useful as, a cable or DSL subscription.