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Clearwire taps new CEO for WiMax expansion

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For more on Clearwire’s WiMax rollout, see Telephony’s Race to 4G topic page.

The Clearwire board today replaced CEO Ben Wolff with Vodafone veteran Bill Morrow, who will take on the difficult task of turning Clearwire from a regional fixed-wireless ISP into a nationwide mobile broadband operator.

Wolff will stay on as co-chairman of the company he helped found, joining fellow co-founder and entrepreneur Craig McCaw as joint head of the board. Clearwire has made slow progress in rolling out WiMax, but Clearwire’s board made a point of saying Wolff’s replacement as CEO was not a reflection on his performance. In a statement today, McCaw said that Wolff was instrumental in building Clearwire into a major broadband wireless operator, raising capital to fund its expansion and negotiating the deal with Sprint, Google, Intel and cable operators that landed Clearwire $3.2 billion in cash and a nationwide spectrum footprint.

“Ben Wolff has routinely made the impossible, possible,” McCaw said. “He also has the wisdom and foresight to recognize that in these unprecedented times, a company can't have too much talent. Together, we have recruited Bill Morrow to lead the Clearwire team. As Co-Chairman, now Ben will be able to dedicate more of his time to Clearwire's strategic direction and transactional opportunities.”

Morrow, 49, most recently led Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco, but the bulk of his telecom experience comes at his time at Vodafone, where he served as CEO of Vodafone Europe and a different times headed up Vodafone’s UK and Japanese groups. Morrow will be responsible for shepherding Clearwire through its next, and most significant phase of growth, which will culminate in two years with a mobile WiMax network in 80 markets covering 120 million people.

"The chance to lead Clearwire at a time when the company sits on the cusp of doing something truly remarkable – to change the way people connect to and use the Internet – was not one to be missed," Morrow said in a statement.

Morrow faces several obstacles, though, the biggest of which will be money and competition. Clearwire has $3.2 billion in capital from its partners, but it will have to seek another multi-billion cash infusion to complete its network. Last week Clearwire revealed its WiMax rollout plans for the next two years, which will see it burn through $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion in 2009—half of the cash it received from the deal. While Clearwire is still sticking to its original goal of 120 million to 140 million pops covered, it appears to be packing most of that expansion toward the latter-half of the two year timeline. Clearwire has named only 8 new markets it plans to launch commercial WiMax service in 2009 Many of those markets will be cities where Sprint and Clearwire already have infrastructure in places or where Clearwire is upgrading its proprietary NextNet gear to full mobile WiMax.

Meanwhile Verizon Wireless plans to take its first commercial long-term evolution (LTE) networks live in 2010. While Clearwire still has a big head start on Verizon and other LTE operators, an extremely aggressive Verizon—or an extremely cautious Clearwire—could nullify much of Clearwire’ time to market advantage.


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