Clearwire: We're not dumping WiMax

Clearwire's technology guru tells CNET how the company plans to juggle two 4G technologies, and why it's making the move now.

Clearwire's move to add a 4G LTE network doesn't mean it's going to be giving up on its current WiMax standard, according to Chief Technology Officer John Saw.

"Expanding into more markets is not off the table," Saw said in an interview with CNET today. "We will continue to add capacity where it's needed most."

Clearwire's announcement yesterday that it would carry a second wireless network was a logical move as the rest of the industry moves to LTE, which offers higher speeds and a larger pool of vendors that can supply equipment and devices at a lower price. The company expects the move to also attract new customers turned off by its older 4G technology. Executives, however, were quick to dismiss the notion that it would completely give up on WiMax.

The company is looking to improve its coverage in high-profile areas, and Saw notes that it covers areas where its competitors are running out of capacity, including Beverly Hills and Cupertino in California, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, and Times Square in Manhattan.

The lifespan of WiMax is dependent upon its customers, and particularly its wholesale partners, Saw said.

"We're selling a lot of WiMax devices, and there's no stopping that," he said. "We will continue to run WiMax as long as there's demand and we can make money off of it."

That said, nearly all of its resources--once it obtains the necessary additional financing--will be devoted to the newer LTE network. Clearwire Chief Executive John Stanton told CNET yesterday that he is confident the company will be able to access additional financing, either through conventional debt or a stock offering, funding through its major shareholders, or the sale of assets such as unused spectrum.

Clearwire plans to spend $600 million to build out its LTE network, a drop in the bucket when compared with prior billion-dollar network rollouts. Saw said that much of the infrastructure was laid down when the company initially built out its WiMax network, and the addition of LTE would require dramatically less new equipment and costs.

In many of the markets, including Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, the networks are equipped with radios able to handle multiple wireless technologies. All Clearwire needs to do is slide in a different card that can tap into LTE, Saw said.

"Adding another 4G technology to an existing 4G platform is much cheaper than moving from 3G to 4G," he said.

Older markets such as Portland, Ore., however, will need to get some new equipment, and additional LTE radios, Saw acknowledged.

Related links
• Clearwire announces LTE shift as losses mount
• Sprint to sell 4G services to wholesale customers
• Sprint, Clearwire CEOs ponder LTE for future

Saw also confirmed that Clearwire is in discussions with Sprint to use the infrastructure from its Network Vision plan to extend the reach of its LTE network. Sprint is upgrading its network to handle multiple technologies and already has a deal to host LightSquared's LTE network.

Saw insisted that Clearwire would not be building a "me-too follower network." While Clearwire is building an LTE network, it runs on a different flavor called TD-LTE, which stands for time division long term evolution.

The network is different than the version of LTE that Verizon Wireless is building out. Over the past eight months, Clearwire has watched Verizon race past the number of markets covered by its 4G network, eliminating Clearwire's advantage in speed and breadth of coverage.

So why use TD-LTE? Clearwire sees an increasing number of major carriers, including China Mobile and Japan's Softbank, opting to use the same technology, which Saw said should drive down prices for equipment.

Saw said Clearwire was already using commercially available devices to test TD-LTE in Phoenix, and expects to have multiple devices available by the time its network launches. Saw declined to provide specific details on the kind of products that will be available.

Clearwire plans to have its LTE network up and running 12 months after it obtains financing.

Another added benefit: the new network will be LTE Advanced ready, which means that it can upgrade to the next iteration of LTE, which provides even more capacity and higher speed, when the technology is ready to be rolled out. Saw said it would take a simple software update, rather than a change in hardware.

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