Clear's Future Anything But


There are a number of interesting questions to ask in reaction to the news that Clearwire has brought in William Morrow to replace CEO Ben Wolff.


The interpretation in this TechFlash piece is that the move is representative of a company that is moving from startup to rollout mode. The implication is that the folks running Clearwire-Sprint, Google, Intel and cable operators Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Bright House Networks-think Morrow is the right man for that sort of job. He most recently was the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric and has worked at Vodafone. Wolff, it should be noted, will co-chair the company with Craig McCaw, who founded the original Clearwire in 2003.


Clearwire, which markets its service as the Clear brand, is at a sensitive time. Last month, I wrote a feature that looked at the question of what impact the economy will have on 4G rollouts. The consensus is that 4G is inevitable, but the financial meltdown will slow things down and have a greater impact on WiMax than the other 4G technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE). WiMax is in the stage that requires a higher level of upfront investment, which is not a good place to be these days. Indeed, it is fair to say that WiMax is being squeezed, metaphorically speaking, by a bad economy now and a robust challenger looming in the future.


There are a few reasons to pay careful attention to this post, written by WiMAX-Vision editor Ken Wieland. It provides a tremendous amount of detail on Clearwire's plans, including the new Clear launches and cities that are being upgraded toWiMax from earlier platforms. The story, which is based on the company's fourth quarter and 2008 results conference call, cites Clearwire claims that it has 18,000 cell sites under development, and will launch in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas/Fort Worth this year. It claims to be upgrading pre-WiMax infrastructure in Seattle, Honolulu, Charlotte, N.C. and other places. WiMax service will be available to more than 120 million people in the United States by the end of next year, Wieland writes.


The piece is unmistakably pro-WiMax. That's valuable because the general coverage has been more favorable to LTE, so a treatment of this type will bring out facts that may go unreported in the other stories. The selective treatment works both ways. This piece doesn't discuss the impact of the economic mess on Clear, something that probably dominated the conference call. The hiring of Morrow and reassignment of Wolff-big pieces of news -- aren't mentioned until the last paragraph.


The tide against which Clear is swimming is swift. Nokia, which set out to build a laptop for WiMax but abandoned the project, said it has settled on LTE and will release products next year. In making the announcement, the company said that WiMax lacks a clear roadmap and backward compatibility to earlier protocols. The comments were made during a presentation to a Portable Computer and Communications Association (PCCA) meeting in Texas. The executive added that Nokia considers WiMax to be a niche technology.


Whether or not the expansive Clear plans are met, the networks that find their way into existance may get the first standalone WiMax handset. That's the word in this piece in Computerworld. The writer says the trimode Sprint smartphone will offer WiMax, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and a third air interface, which probably will be Wi-Fi. The piece also suggests that the device could be based on Android, since Sprint and Google-the company driving Android-are Clearwire partners. The story says Sprint will act as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), meaning that it will use Clear to run networks for third parties, whose name will actually be used. Sprint will provision and support the new handset and other devices that run on the networks.


These are perilous times for Clearwire or any company to bring a new product to market. Clearwire, however, didn't ask for the recession. It must do the best it can with the cards dealt to it. The drama of the next year or so will be where in the spectrum -- between its optimistic forecasts or Nokia's niche predictions -- the company finally settles.