Clearwire to release 4G handsets
As subscriber numbers grow, Clearwire plans to support two data-centric WiMax handsets on its network by year's end.
Sprint (NYSE:S) won’t be the only operator with a 4G handset this year. On its Q1 earnings call today, Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) said it will offer new WiMax handsets to its retail mobile broadband customers in 2010. The first, built by Samsung, will be an Android-powered 3G-4G device optimized for heavy video streaming and communications use, while the second, designed by HTC, will be a 3G-4G phone. Both will presumably function on both Clearwire and Sprint networks.
Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow offered few details on the new devices, saying only that its primary focus in 2010 will remain on the mobile computing market but that Clearwire is poised to take advantage of the smartphone boom as the devices focus more on data and less on voice. While Clearwire has no voice network of its own, it could launch a VoIP service over the high-capacity WiMax network or it can take advantage of its MVNO agreement with investor Sprint to use its 1X voice network for voice as well as fall back on Sprint’s EV-DO networks in areas where Clearwire has no 4G service.
HTC is building Sprint’s WiMax phone, the EVO 4G. When asked if Clearwire would offer the same device, Morrow didn’t exactly settle the issue. “The Sprint announcement is different from our announcement,” Morrow said. “These phones are unique to our retail brand Clear.”
Clearwire added 281,000 net subscribers in the first quarter, driven by a 111,000 addition surge from its wholesale partners Sprint, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC). Clearwire now has 971,000 total subscribers on its networks, but unlike the previous quarter, the operator didn’t reveal how many of them are 4G WiMax customers versus subscribers to its older pre-WiMax networks. At the end of 2009, Clearwire had 250,000 customers on the old fixed wireless networks, but those numbers have likely fallen off, as Clearwire continues to convert those old NextNet systems to WiMax. Today Clearwire, announced its rollout schedule for the summer, which includes larger markets like Kansas City and Orlando, but also many of the final remaining towns and cities with NextNet systems.
Regardless of the breakdown, Clearwire is definitely demonstrating sizable growth. It’s own retail net adds almost doubled quarter over quarter to 170,000, and its wholesale business — which brings in less revenue per subscriber but costs Clearwire nothing in customer acquisition and support costs — has evolved from an insignificant factor to a major connection source. Clearwire pointed out that one-third of its wholesale subscribers actually don’t live in markets that currently have 4G coverage. Sprint has started pre-selling WiMax devices in markets scheduled to receive WiMax networks.
Clearwire also confirmed that its big deployment push in 2010 will come in the latter half of the year, when it plans to roll out its big metro markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. The timing puts Clearwire right in the time frame of Verizon Wireless’ (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) 4G rollout, which will also focus on the larger cities. While Clearwire has enjoyed a year head start in some big cities such as Las Vegas and Chicago, VZW might be the first operator to take 4G live in other key metro markets.
Clearwire also added an additional spark to the speculation over whether it might abandon WiMax for the much more widely supported long-term evolution, which is being deployed by AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon Wireless, MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) and dozens of other wireless operators worldwide. Clearwire has maintained for some time that is technology agnostic and would deploy whatever technology best supported its mobile broadband business model. But under an agreement with investor and WiMax proponent Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Clearwire is locked into WiMax for the foreseeable future. Today Clearwire announced a new agreement with Intel that allows it to opt out of its WiMax requirement at any time with 30 days notice.
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