BARCELONA, Spain--Apple's iPhone has been making the rounds at all the carriers. So why not Clearwire?
Clearwire's planned move to LTE means Apple wouldn't have any difficulties in building an iPhone that is compatible with its network, according to Clearwire CEO Eric Prusch. In fact, it would benefit Apple to have an iPhone that ran on its kind of network technology, he said.
Such a notion would have been unthinkable even a few months ago, when Clearwire was stuck on its WiMax network and struggling financially. But after some financing and a cash infusion from Sprint Nextel--simultaneously its largest customer and shareholder--the company is back on track. And with Sprint getting the iPhone in October, the door opens for the next version to run on Clearwire's network, assuming it is compatible with LTE.
A spokeswoman from Sprint declined to comment. Apple wasn't available for comment.
Clearwire plans on moving to a network standard called TD-LTE, which is slightly different than the FD-LTE variant that AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint are moving toward. But Clearwire is working with Sprint to ensure that the two different versions of LTE would work together, and Prusch said that there already exists a chip that can straddle both networks.
Qualcomm, in fact, has supported both modes in its chips. A Qualcomm executive told CNET that there were three TD-LTE deployments as of January, and 20 ongoing trials.
Clearwire already supplies Sprint with its current 4G service. Many of Sprint's marquee devices, including the Evo 4G, ride on both its own 3G network and Clearwire's 4G WiMax network. It wouldn't be a huge stretch for Apple to sell an iPhone that could run on both Sprint's 3G network and Clearwire's 4G network. Sprint is building its own LTE network, but has said it would look to Clearwire to unload some heavy data capacity, particularly in the busiest areas.
Prusch declined to say whether an iPhone would end up on its network.
But he did note some of the advantages that come with having a device that runs on TD-LTE. There are a number of major international carriers committed to the standard, including China Mobile, India's Bharti, and Japan's Softbank, which currently offers the 3G version of the iPhone. In fact, the coalition of major carriers planning to move to TD-LTE outstrips that of FD-LTE. Prusch said 2 billion subscribers will be on TD-LTE by 2014.
For now, Clearwire's main priority is the planned move to LTE. The company plans to begin its deployment by the end of March, and be at 5,000 cellular sites by the middle of the year. It needs to perform software upgrades and minor equipment changes, allowing for a much speedier roll out than before. Prusch said the biggest cities with the most need for additional spectrum would get LTE early, which hints at crowded cities such as New York and San Francisco getting first dibs.
While Clearwire maintains a streamlined retail presence--selling its service online and through some direct marketing to more tech-savvy customers--its real revenue engine comes from its wholesale model. Clearwire maintains an anchor tenant in Sprint, which represents the bulk of its business, and will continue to do so.
But the company is looking beyond Sprint and toward other wholesale customers. Prusch said the company has signed up customers to its WiMax service, but that LTE brings opens up the possibility for a lot of new customers looking to move to that 4G technology.
Clearwire is sitting pretty after the only other wholesale alternative, LightSquared, was essentially killed off when the Federal Communications Commission revoked its waiver, banning it from building its planned 4G LTE network. The company's CEO resigned yesterday as the company looks for new leadership. Prusch dismissed the notion that Clearwire benefited from LightSquared's demise, noting that there has been a steady flow of conversations with potential customers both before and after LightSquared encountered its problems.
Likewise, he didn't believe Sprint's plans to work with LightSquared had an impact on its relationship with Clearwire.
"We've had confidence in their dependence on us, and us on them," Prusch said.
Another area for potential customers are the rival carriers. The notion of AT&T and Verizon Wireless partnering with Clearwire would be surprising, but Prusch said the company could provide some relief from those in need of spectrum.
"There are a lot of carriers that need a lot of spectrum," he said.