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Sprint plans to bring WiMax to Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile

Carrier is keeping WiMax alive by bringing the service to its prepaid arms.

Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers will be getting 4G -- albeit the older WiMax variant -- in the next quarter.

Sprint Nextel is keeping its older 4G standard alive and plans to bring it to its two prepaid arms next quarter, said Steve Elfman, president of network operations for the carrier. He made his comments during the company's earnings conference call today.

Bringing WiMax to Virgin and Boost gives prepaid customers access to a faster wireless network. Prepaid continues to be a vital part of Sprint's business. In the first quarter, Sprint added 489,000 net prepaid customers, far outstripping the growth in its contract business.

For Sprint, the move will get customers off the 3G network and on to the separate WiMax network. The company is working to ease capacity on the 3G network, partly as a result of the heavy traffic that comes from carrying the 3G-only iPhone.

Sprint uses Clearwire's WiMax network as its current 4G offering, although Sprint plans to offer 4G LTE to six markets by the middle of the year. As a result of Sprint's unlimited wholesale agreement with Clearwire, the company has more flexibility and willingness to offload its traffic to WiMax.

"It's hugely important to us because of unlimited pricing," Elfman said. He added the company has started putting software in smartphones that enable them to look for WiMax or Wi-Fi to provide some relief to the 3G network.

By bringing on Boost and Virgin, Sprint is further validating Clearwire's WiMax network. Clearwire plans to upgrade to LTE next year, but has said it would continue to support WiMax for a while longer. No word on when Sprint will bring LTE to its prepaid arms, although executives have previously said it will happen at some point.

Sprint earlier today reported a first-quarter loss of $863 million, or nearly double that of a year ago, largely as a result of the actions the company took to shut down its Nextel network. The company did manage to eke out some growth on the revenue side.