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7/12/2010
10:49 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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EVO 4G Shortages Hurting Sprint's WiMax Lead

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said that the company might blow its 4G lead due to a lack of 4G-enabled devices. The HTC-made EVO 4G, in particular, is almost non-existent.

HTC is having a tough time making enough EVO 4Gs for Sprint. It's also having a hard time making enough Droid Incredibles for Verizon Wireless. Both devices are it short supply because HTC isn't getting enough of the large touch displays from Samsung that both devices require. The issue could have a large impact on Sprint's 4G business, say some.

"The early move to 4G has benefited Sprint from a marketing perspective, but it hasn't really proven out in a major way in subscriber growth," said Dan Hays, who works for consulting firm PRTM. Sprint has been marketing its 4G services heavily via television commercials since early this year. Despite the expansion of its WiMax network to 43 markets, the company hasn't been able to capitalize on its lead.

Part of the problem is the lack of 4G devices. Sprint and its partner have been offering WiMax-enabled laptop dongles and hotspot creators for months. While those are great for early adopting business users, Sprint needs to get WiMax-equipped handsets in the market if it really wants WiMax subscriber adoption to take off.

Sprint first announced the EVO 4G in March. The device went on sale in early June. The device sold out almost immediately. Since opening weekend, the device has been available only sporadically across the U.S. Macquarie Group estimates that Sprint has sold about 300,000 of the Android-powered smartphones, but Sprint hasn't said how many it has sold.

We do know that at the end of the first quarter of 2010, Clearwire had a total of 157,000 customers -- and that number included Sprint subscribers. It's possible we'll gain more clarity about the number of WiMax subscribers when Clearwire files its second quarter report.

In the mean time, Sprint is losing out. If the EVO 4G were in ready supply across the country, it would be signing up more WiMax subscribers. "We thought we would have more of a head start than we'll end up having," Mr. Hesse said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Sprint has already announced its second WiMax device, the Samsung Epic 4G. Samsung hasn't said exactly when that device will go on sale, but the end of the summer will be the earliest we see it in stores.

Competitor Verizon Wireless is moving full-steam ahead with its Long Term Evolution deployment. The company expects to launch LTE in a handful of markets by the end of the year. Devices such as laptop dongles will surely be among the first to become available, though I'd be surprised if Verizon didn't also have a smartphone ready when the LTE network launches.

Sprint can only hope to entice as many new customers as possible before Verizon's LTE network goes live. Until it gets more WiMax phones in stock, it's going to have a hard time doing that.

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