Sprint Details LTE Plans As Clearwire’s Decline Accelerates

Sprint (NYSE: S) added a little color to its previously announced plans to embrace LTE as a next-generation wireless standard, telling financial analysts and the media Friday at an event in New York that it plans to launch such a network in the middle of next year with plans to complete the rollout across the U.S. by the end of 2013. And by refusing to commit to its current WiMax technology beyond 2012, Sprint has likely ended any real attempts to install WiMax as a standard in the U.S.

A company that just never seems to do anything the easy way, Sprint has faced tough decisions this year based on its embrace of WiMax as its standard for faster wireless networks. Its partner in building that network, Clearwire (NSDQ: CLWR), has struggled to roll out such a network, losing millions in the process while acknowledging that it will somehow have to build an LTE network to stay viable. LTE is the standard used by AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (as well as much of the rest of the world) in building out fast networks, and device makers are much more interested in building phones that conform to that standard because of the number of subscribers on those networks.

After announcing it would start building an LTE network this summer, Sprint executives said Friday that LTE devices would be available for its network next summer with as many as 15 launching before the end of the year. The company will continue to sell devices that run on WiMax throughout 2012, but didn’t commit to anything beyond that, which would appear to be the end of the road for WiMax.

Clearwire insisted it wasn’t dead (although many remaining investors fled the stock Friday, bringing it dangerously close to penny-stock status). It said in a statement:

Sprint remains dependent on Clearwire for 4G and nothing about today’s announcement changes that. Even with their re-allocation of existing spectrum, it’s obvious that their spectrum resources are insufficient to meet the long term demands of mobile data, but this is not unique to Sprint. Data capacity will clearly stress the capabilities of the low capacity 4G deployments of other carriers due to their spectrum constraints.

But the writing is clearly on the wall. If Sprint, Clearwire’s long-time benefactor, is unable or unwilling to invest in the company (a topic Sprint executives repeatedly dodged Friday, causing frustration according to reports) it’s going to have to find somebody who will.

That would also mean that Sprint would be on its own as it tries to build out an LTE network far behind the pace of its U.S. competitors. Should Sprint reach its goals, it will have built two national wireless 4G networks at a staggering cost and without making a dent in the competition.

But hey, at least the company is getting the iPhone.