Sprint Nextel officially launches its long-awaited first commercial WiMAX network in Baltimore today. What does that mean for the public-safety industry?

The FCC recently adopted draft rules for the re-auction of the 10 MHz D block in the 700 MHz band that allows commercial operators, which will partner with public safety for services, to either bid on a nationwide license or regional licenses. They’ll also be allowed to choose any 4G mobile broadband technology—WiMAX or Long Term Evolution (LTE)—to deploy in the band. Which technology wins in the D block likely will depend heavily on which technology is winning in the marketplace.

The 4G momentum during the last year has teetered between WiMAX and LTE. WiMAX has been heavily hyped for nearly two years as the technology that will unleash the mobile broadband era. But Sprint, the technology’s biggest backer, delayed any launches by a year as it grappled with customer defections from its mobile phone service and the high capital spending required to build out the network.

In May, the operator hammered out a deal with Clearwire, a wireless broadband operator in Seattle, Wash., whereby Clearwire will absorb Sprint’s WiMAX business with the help of $3.2 billion from Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner and other cable operators. The combined company is planning large-scale deployments in 2009 with a national footprint by 2010, when Clearwire expects to have a footprint covering 120 million to 140 million potential subscribers—a timeline that will put the company well ahead of its LTE competitors.

Meanwhile, LTE, while about two years behind WiMAX in terms commercial readiness, has gained favor with the world’s largest operators, including Verizon and AT&T in the U.S. That means the economies of scale tip in favor of LTE. Each LTE announcement that comes over the wire seems to be more positive than the next. A recent study from ABI Research said LTE would support more than 32 million subscribers by 2013. That's just three years after the technology is expected to become commercially available.

Baltimore is only the beginning for mobile WiMAX. How the standard performs, how fast Clearwire actually rolls out the technology and how many subscribers it and its cable partners attract will have a major impact on the decisions of other would-be Greenfield mobile WiMAX players, including D-block winners. If all doesn’t go well, these operators will likely wait for LTE given the economies of scale the standard promises. Clearly, the fate of WiMAX rests on Clearwire’s shoulders.