Sprint to pay Clearwire $1B over two years in revised wholesale partnership

Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) resolved their wholesale pricing dispute and announced a revised deal in which Sprint will pay Clearwire $1 billion this year and in 2012. The dispute, which began last year, had been the key point of contention between Clearwire and Sprint, which holds a 54 percent stake in Clearwire and resells its mobile WiMAX service.

Under the terms of the deal, Sprint will pay Clearwire a minimum of $1 billion for wholesale services comprised of minimum usage commitments of $300 million in 2011, $550 million in 2012 and $175 million in pre-payments to be used this year, next year and beyond.

Additionally, the two companies inked a deal on wholesale pricing related to Sprint's devices that operate on Clearwire's network, including dual-mode smartphones such as the HTC Evo and Samsung Epic. That agreement includes a minimum payment per device as well as usage-based pricing and data traffic volume discounts. The companies said the devices deal will allow both companies to continue to grow their respective smartphone and dual-mode device user base.

There are other aspects of the deal whose long-term implications are still not clear, but could produce dividends for both companies. For example, the revised agreement will extend Sprint's capability to offer customized solutions using Clearwire's network. The companies said this is expected to allow Sprint to better serve enterprise and government customers as well as expand its M2M business. "It will allow us to build out custom network solutions on Clearwire's spectrum for enterprise and government customers," Sprint spokesman Scott Sloat told FierceWireless. That's something we weren't able to do before."

Further, the agreement expands the mutual re-wholesaling rights the companies have, allowing both companies to resell the other's network to other parties. Sprint and Clearwire said the deal is expected to open up market segments for both companies to jointly or independently pursue.

Interestingly, Sprint is in advanced negotiations to strike network sharing deals with both Clearwire and LightSquared, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Representatives from all three parties declined to comment.

What remains unclear from the agreement are the exact prices Sprint will pay Clearwire, including the amount of the minimum payment per device. Also unclear is how much Sprint is paying Clearwire per GB of data. "At $4 per GB and 2 GB of wireless phone usage, the monthly charge for that 4G smartphone would drop to $8 on $20 of related revenue, thereby lifting the gross margin of that customer to 60 percent, which is still 900 basis points below current levels," BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk wrote in a research note. "Tethering would bring in an additional $30/month of revenue to Sprint but the functionality would likely drive up usage and the related costs to Sprint. We do not have enough data from Sprint to accurately forecast this element of network expense but we believe that roaming among the other factors mentioned above will contract gross margins by 180 basis points in 2012. Network sharing deals could help gross margins but there might also be capital spending related to these improvements."

For more:
- see this release

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