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Clearwire's Future Unclear at Sprint

Sprint's partnership with LightSquared could mean it's moving away from Clearwire, but it could come back if the LTE provider doesn’t get FCC approval

Sarah Thomas

July 28, 2011

2 Min Read
Clearwire's Future Unclear at Sprint

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s plans to partner with LightSquared for Long Term Evolution (LTE) don't exclude WiMax provider Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR), but where the wholesaler fits into the new threesome over the long run isn't exactly clear. (See Sprint's $13.5B Jump to LTE With LightSquared.)

The uncertainty sent Clearwire's shares down 20 percent Thursday morning after the deal was announced.

That's because the LightSquared partnership could signal a shift away from Clearwire and WiMax, although the 4G technology is clearly still an important part of Sprint's strategy. It sold 1.7 million WiMax handsets in the second quarter, the first time the carrier has broken out any 4G numbers. Sprint doesn't report WiMax subscriber adds, but Clearwire, which it owns 54 percent of, reported 4.86 million total wholesale subs in the first quarter. (See Sprint Confirms LightSquared Deal, Losses Grow and Sprint Gives Clearwire $1B Boost.)

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse would only reiterate Sprint's commitment to Clearwire, guaranteed through 2012, refusing to explain how it would evolve given the carrier's LTE plans. He's said in the past that a network-sharing agreement with the wholesaler, which owns valuable spectrum in the 2.5 GHz bands and has plenty of frequency available for LTE, could also be in the cards. (See What Will Sprint Reveal of its 4G Plans? and Network Polygamy Ahead for Sprint?)

As part of Sprint's multi-modal "Network Vision" base station plan, it would be technically possible for it to support spectrum from Clearwire, LightSquared and others still. And, with LightSquared's interference issues slowing its progress, Sprint may be forced to look elsewhere.

Hesse made the announcement one day after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its findings on the GPS interference that could result from LightSquared's original network plans. The wholesaler has already agreed to move down from the upper L-band spectrum, but the FAA refused to concede that the lower L-band wouldn't interfere with airfield operations. (See LightSquared Claims It Has Answer to GPS Problem.)

Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Inc. Senior Analyst Craig Moffett took the FAA study, along with congressional pressure, to mean there's little chance the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would approve LightSquared's plan "without another significant course of interference testing, presumably followed by yet another round of remediation proposals and replies."

Given the potential delay, Moffett isn't placing much confidence in LightSquared's partnership with Sprint -- meaning that Sprint's 4G future could still be in the hands of Clearwire, a fact it may be trying to leverage with LightSquared.

"We believe Clearwire is Sprint's, and Sprint's alone, to fund," Moffett wrote in a research note. "And that further underscores our view that Sprint must be valued through the unflattering lens of proportionate (or worse, even full) consolidation with its Clearwire subsidiary."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

About the Author(s)

Sarah Thomas

Director, Women in Comms

Sarah Thomas's love affair with communications began in 2003 when she bought her first cellphone, a pink RAZR, which she duly "bedazzled" with the help of superglue and her dad.

She joined the editorial staff at Light Reading in 2010 and has been covering mobile technologies ever since. Sarah got her start covering telecom in 2007 at Telephony, later Connected Planet, may it rest in peace. Her non-telecom work experience includes a brief foray into public relations at Fleishman-Hillard (her cussin' upset the clients) and a hodge-podge of internships, including spells at Ingram's (Kansas City's business magazine), American Spa magazine (where she was Chief Hot-Tub Correspondent), and the tweens' quiz bible, QuizFest, in NYC.

As Editorial Operations Director, a role she took on in January 2015, Sarah is responsible for the day-to-day management of the non-news content elements on Light Reading.

Sarah received her Bachelor's in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She lives in Chicago with her 3DTV, her iPad and a drawer full of smartphone cords.

Away from the world of telecom journalism, Sarah likes to dabble in monster truck racing, becoming part of Team Bigfoot in 2009.

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