In Sprint's multibillion-dollar vision, people will soon be able to sit in a moving car (passenger seat, please) and take part in a video...

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In Sprint’s multibillion-dollar vision, people will soon be able to sit in a moving car (passenger seat, please) and take part in a video chat, while downloading a movie and writing e-mails.

That is courtesy of WiMax wireless broadband technology. But while Sprint has faced delays making WiMax a reality, a little-known Ashburn, Va., firm has been connecting residents in such unlikely places as Jackson, Wyo.; Appomattox, Va.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho, to the Internet.

What DigitalBridge Communications has done offers a preview of what the technology might mean for the rest of the country.

It has brought broadband Web access to homes that had none, and now it’s allowing people to access the Web on the road with their laptops at about the same speed they’d get at home or at work.

Slower outside home

Mobile phone companies have unveiled all sorts of plans to allow people to browse the Web from laptops and smart phones, but none has offered the speeds rivaling what one gets at home.

Sprint, in partnership with Kirkland-based Clearwire and giants Intel, Comcast and Time Warner, plans to roll out WiMax in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago this fall.

“It’ll dramatically change the way they live and the way they enjoy the Internet. [Users] won’t have to go back to their individual house or business or hot spot for broadband. They’ll be able to do it wherever they want,” DigitalBridge Chairman William Wallace said.

Added Joe Kochan, DigitalBridge vice president of operations, about his own experience in Jackson in the passenger seat of a moving car:

“We were going 40 miles per hour. I had a laptop. I was making a Skype call. I was watching a YouTube video and browsing a Web site at the same time.”

A lifeline

Sprint, trying to stem the exodus of customers from its mobile phone service, sees WiMax as a lifeline.

Intel is looking for a second coming in the technology, putting WiMax chips in everything from laptops to smart phones and cameras.

DigitalBridge is simply looking to build a profitable business — something it has yet to attain, though executives say their business model should make the company profitable within two years.

Formed by a trio of Verizon executives in 2005, DigitalBridge seeks to bring WiMax to cities with populations of up to 150,000. At first, the company focused on bringing broadband to where it wasn’t.

That included places like Appomattox, population 1,725, where cable and phone companies didn’t want to invest in building expensive landlines.

When it selects a locality, DigitalBridge installs broadcast stations atop cellular towers and tall buildings, which are connected by fiber cable to a regional Internet provider.

The stations send a signal up to as far as three miles. Customers rent a device that looks like a modem and plug it into an electric outlet and into their computer.

DigitalBridge markets its service as BridgeMaxx, starting at $25 per month.

It first moved into Rexburg, Idaho, before spreading out to other cities and states.

In total, DigitalBridge operates in 14 localities, marketing the product through newspapers, radio and sponsorships, including a rodeo in Twin Falls, Idaho. It has a network of 20,000 customers that is growing by about 2,000 a month.

DigitalBridge sees its long-term success as dependent on the multitude of devices that will allow people to get broadband on the road, on a bus, in a park or by the lake.

Competing technologies

The WiMax technology is not the only one trying to speed up connections. The big mobile companies routinely unveil networks that promise consumers faster links to the Web.

AT&T, Verizon and others have placed their bets on a competing technology called Long Term Evolution.

WiMax base stations could run into the same technical problems that cellular towers did in the early years of mobile phones, such as frequent breakdowns. That’s been a concern among some analysts for Sprint, which, with its partners is making a huge financial commitment to building the service in metropolitan areas.

Chief Executive P. Kelley Dunne said that rather than make the big financial commitment a Sprint would in a big city, a company could build a network bit by bit.

“We can build networks around where there’s existing demand,” he said.