T-Mobile backs LTE, calls WiMAX a 'niche play'

T-Mobile USA said it doesn't feel pressure to transition to LTE. However, it would prefer to switch to LTE over WiMAX--a statement that seems to indicate T-Mobile isn't keen on becoming a wholesale partner of Clearwire's (NASDAQ:CLWR) mobile WiMAX network.

"We'll look towards LTE at the right point in time for us," Neville Ray, T-Mobile's chief network officer, said in an interview with Bloomberg. "That ecosystem is going to be much richer than the competing one from WiMAX, which is really a niche play." Importantly, however, Ray did not rule out a possible deal with Clearwire to get on the company's WiMAX network.

The comments are interesting because T-Mobile and Clearwire have been holding negotiations for months about whether the carrier will become a Clearwire partner. Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow said last week at an investor conference that his company and T-Mobile were holding talks, but he declined to elaborate. Such negotiations could pivot on Clearwire's testing of LTE network technology.

Morrow also said Clearwire--which will need more funding as it continues its network expansion--could raise money by selling off unneeded spectrum. However, Morrow said the company would prefer to score an equity investment from a service provider that would rent space on its network at a preferred rate, similar to the deal Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) has with Clearwire. Sprint holds a 54 percent stake in Clearwire.

Clearwire's strategic direction appears to be in flux right now. The company is conducting LTE trials in Phoenix. Additionally, on Thursday three top Sprint executives--CEO Dan Hesse, Steve Elfman, president of network operations and wholesale, and Keith Cowan, president of strategy and corporate initiatives--resigned from Clearwire's board. Clearwire said the action was an attempt to "address questions raised by Clearwire regarding new developments in antitrust law." The executives' departures ignited fresh speculation about whether Sprint will eventually buy Clearwire outright, or if Clearwire is preparing to take a more independent strategic approach.

Ray said T-Mobile is content to continue rolling out HSPA+ to its footprint. T-Mobile plans to cover 100 major metropolitan areas--200 million people--with HSPA+ by year-end. The nation's fourth largest carrier currently has around 55 markets and 100 million POPs covered with HSPA+. "We're not waiting for the technology choice, we have the right technology to deliver that experience today," he said.

For more:
- see this Bloomberg article

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Clearwire open to funding from T-Mobile USA
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Sprint assessing final bids for network modernization endeavor
Clearwire doesn't need Sprint's OK for a T-Mobile deal 
Report: Sprint conflicted about T-Mobile investing in Clearwire

Article updated Oct. 1 to reflect Neville Ray's comments.