Clearwire not slowing WiMAX rollout

The industry has been waiting to hear whether Clearwire would significantly taper off its rollout of WiMAX across its footprint given the deteriorating economy, but executives reaffirmed during the company's fourth-quarter conference call that it would cover 120 million covered POPs in 80 markets with WiMAX by the end of 2010. When Clearwire and Sprint announced their intention to combine their WiMAX businesses, executives then said the venture would cover 120 million to 140 million POPs by the end of 2010.

The company didn't reveal the exact number of markets it will launch in this year but indicated at least half of its pre-WiMAX markets will be upgraded to standardized mobile WiMAX in 2009 with the other half moving in 2010. Those markets will include Seattle, Honolulu and Charlotte, N.C. Clearwire also plans to extend coverage in Baltimore, where Sprint launched last year, and rebrand the service to the Clear name. Brand new markets that will see commercial WiMAX this year include Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Big markets such as New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. will see WiMAX in 2010.

Armed with $3.2 billion from partners Comcast, Time Warner, Google, Intel and others, Clearwire's funding needs will be based on how quickly it will build out its markets, CEO Ben Wolff said. "We have the flexibility to modulate our buildout plans," he said. "If capital is available earlier, we'll move more quickly. Even at a rapid pace, a nationwide footprint will not emerge overnight." The company expects to spend between $1.5 billion and $1.9 billion this year.

Wolff stressed the rollout of WiMAX is not a race, saying early indications in Portland, Ore., where it rolled out mobile WiMAX in January indicate ubiquitous coverage is not vital to the technology's success. Nationwide roaming is not a requirement for success, he said, adding that the company will launch a dual-mode WiMAX/CDMA 1xEVDO modem this summer that will let customers roam on Sprint's 3G network when out of the Clearwire service area. Moreover, the company expects its wholesale partners, such as Sprint, Comcast and Time Warner to begin selling WiMAX services in the second half of 2009.

Clearwire executives say the company has seen good takeup on its lone live "Clear" WiMAX market in Portland, Ore. "The rapid takeup in Portland has been more than double that of any of Clearwire's other 47 markets," Wolff said.

The company also reported consolidated revenue of $20.5 million and a net loss of $118 million. Average revenue per user was up 10 percent from $36.09 in fourth quarter 2007 to $39.70 in 4Q 2008.  The number of VoIP customers also doubled from 10 percent in 4Q 2007 to 20 percent in 4Q 2008. The company added 5,000 net new subscribers for a total subscriber base of 475,000. The low number was expected as Clearwire ratcheted down its marketing efforts in its pre-WiMAX markets. Churn was 2.8 percent up from 2.4 percent in the prior year's quarter.

For more:
- see this press release

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