Wait, now Sprint wants to control Clearwire?

After four years of keeping Clearwire(s clwr) at arm’s length, Sprint(s s) apparently feels it’s time to step in and take the struggling 4G carrier under its wing, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper’s unnamed sources state that Sprint is negotiating with Clearwire’s other investors to take control of its board.

Sprint already owns a 48 percent stake in the company, but ever since it merged its WiMAX operations with Clearwire back in 2009, Sprint has kept its distance, viewing the 4G operator as a supplier of bandwidth rather than a key component of its network strategy. The idea was that Clearwire as an independent company would attract outside investors and build a big honking 4G network. Sprint would get all of the benefit of that network without having to foot the bill.

Well, that didn’t happen. Clearwire’s nationwide rollout stopped after it got a third of the country covered, and it’s been in a holding pattern ever since. Instead of re-upping its investment in Clearwire, Sprint spent just enough to keep it afloat and then launched its own LTE network. Talk about a dysfunctional relationship.

Why would Sprint be suddenly interested in taking control over the partner its been jilting for years? According to the Journal, Sprint is required to do so make good on its deal with Softbank Mobile, which early this week agreed to acquire 70 percent of the country’s third largest carrier. As I pointed out earlier this week Softbank and Clearwire have a lot in common due to their 4G technology choices, but not necessarily enough in common to justify buying Clearwire outright. Maybe this option – if it proves to be true – splits the difference.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Susan Law Cain