Clearwire: Just give us one more year on LTE

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We’ll have to wait another year for the LTE network Clearwire has long been promising. At its quarterly earnings call on Wednesday, Clearwire CEO Erik Prusch said the WiMAX carrier’s first batch of 5,000 LTE cell sites will be switched by June 2013, FierceWireless reported. The launch almost seems perfectly timed to coincide with the completion of primary investor and customer Sprint’s own LTE rollout, which will start this summer and ramp up throughout 2013.

Sprint’s initial LTE network won’t be the rip roaring ultra-fast mobile broadband systems Verizon Wireless and AT&T have deployed in most areas. Rather, Sprint will only have half the capacity of its competitors, so it’s counting on Clearwire’s network to supplement its bandwidth in high-traffic urban areas. Sprint was originally hoping to augment its own networks with LightSquared’s capacity, but LightSquared’s planned LTE launch is now dead in the water. Ironically, Sprint’s loss is Clearwire’s gain. LightSquared’s announced wholesale customers appear to be migrating over to Clearwire.

Prusch said Clearwire plans to add another 3,000 sites “not too terribly long” after the launch of the first 5,000, Fierce reported. In the grand scheme of U.S. networks, that’s hardly a nationwide footprint, but Clearwire never intended it to be. Instead it’s deploying LTE in hot zones and won’t even be covering entire cities. The idea is those LTE cells will provide capacity backup to its wholesale customers’ existing LTE networks as well as its own WiMAX footprint.

Don’t expect Sprint to start shoehorning Clearwire’s capacity into its LTE service next year, though. Sprint and Clearwire are using two different variants of LTE technology, so Sprint will need to procure devices that support both flavors if it plans to make use of both networks simultaneously. Clearwire is working with other global operators backing its time-division LTE variant to promote chipsets that bridge both standards, but it may be several years before we see the first smartphones to come from that effort.

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