Clearwire Launches Portland WiMax, Delays D.C., Chicago

Integrating Clearwire and Sprint Xohm has shifted the company's focus recently from launching WiMax networks to dealing with more mundane administrative formalities.
Clearwire officially launched its new Clear WiMax service in Portland, Ore., today, but now that it's become a new company after merging with Sprint Xohm, Clearwire appears to be behind schedule in adding new cities to its WiMax network. To wit: There's been little news at all on new networks in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which were expected to be up and running by the end of 2008.

Now Washington, D.C., and Chicago may not be publicly launched until the second half of 2009, even though some enterprising users who signed up for Sprint's Xohm network before the transition have been able to sign on in both cities.

During the last month or so, Clearwire and Sprint have worked to integrate back-office billing systems, develop the new Clear brand, formalize plans for media and advertising, make it easier to move between cities, and build out new networks. As the extent of those efforts have come into focus, Clearwire senior VP and chief marketing officer Atish Gude said in an interview, some rollouts have been pushed back slightly. "From the original version we communicated from a Sprint standpoint, plans have changed," he said.

For example, Gude says that when Sprint and Clearwire publicly launched Baltimore's network, it wasn't nearly as built out as it is today. In the future, networks will be more built out before launch. That means Clearwire will continue putting up antennas and building network infrastructure in Chicago and Washington, D.C., for a few more months to eliminate spotty coverage, and will spread widely into metropolitan areas like the heavily traveled Baltimore-Washington corridor.

"As we launch the next series of markets, we want to make sure we do the right thing to get customer experience right from the get-go," Gude said. Reviews of Xohm service in Baltimore have been generally positive, though some have noted inconsistent mobile coverage.

Part of the delays may have to do with formalities. "With the closing of our transaction, we formed a new company, and as such we need to share our expansion plans with our new board before we make any public announcements," a Clearwire spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to questions. "We will announce our network expansion plans early this year, after we have had a chance to meet with our new board to discuss our plans."

The networks in Baltimore, Portland, Washington, and Chicago are all part of Clearwire's plan to build a nationwide WiMax network that will compete with coming 4G networks from AT&T and Verizon, which are building on the emerging Long-Term Evolution technology. Those networks aren't expected to go live for a few years, but one of Clearwire's big advantages in mobile broadband is time, and any delay decreases that advantage.

Within the next few months, Baltimore's customers will move from the Xohm brand to the new Clear brand and will get a new portal site. Other rollout plans will also be announced "shortly," according to Gude. Sprint previously disclosed future buildout in Boston; Providence, R.I.; Philadelphia; Dallas; and Fort Worth, Texas, while Clearwire operates pre-standard WiMax networks (which Clearwire has said will be upgraded) in underserved towns and cities in 16 states.

Clearwire has raised only about 60% of the $5 billion it said it would need to build out a nationwide WiMax network, and the tough economy doesn't bode well for raising the additional $2 billion any time soon. However, President-elect Barack Obama plans to unveil a major economic stimulus package in the coming weeks that will likely include some broadband infrastructure spending, so some help could be on the way.

Even if no funding comes in for a while, Gude said Clearwire is well positioned to continue with its original buildout plans. "The launch in Baltimore gives us excitement that there is still very good demand out there despite the economy," he said. "And at this moment, we're well set in our funding." At some point, however, Clearwire will have to fill that $2 billion gap, and Gude is counting on a growing array of embedded devices and continued public interest to help make that happen.

To help further understand the factors contributing to next-generation wireless technologies, InformationWeek has published an analysis of the 4G landscape. Download the report here (registration required).

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