Sprint Turns Down Chance to Invest More in Clearwire

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WiMax mobile broadband provider Clearwire has missed out on a potential investment from partner Sprint Nextel, just days after founding Chairman Craig McCaw resigned.

Clearwire raised approximately US$1.4 billion in a debt offering announced on Dec. 2. As part of the offering, Sprint had the right to buy about $585 million [m] in additional debt within the next 30 days. That option expired on Jan. 2, and Sprint confirmed on Monday that it had declined to participate.

The debt offering followed strict measures to conserve cash, which Clearwire announced in November. Those included layoffs of 15 percent of its staff, a delay in introducing its first branded handset, and cutbacks in certain marketing and development efforts. The company has been struggling to finance the buildout of its national WiMax network, which was scheduled to reach 120 million U.S. residents by the end of last year but fell just short of that mark, with coverage for just over 110 million.

It's not clear what triggered McCaw's departure, which became effective Dec. 31, but the move may have a silver lining, according to industry analysts. Eagle River Holdings, McCaw's investment company, is expected to name former Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff to replace McCaw on the board, Clearwire said last week. McCaw remains a significant investor in the company.

Wolff, who was replaced by former Vodafone executive Bill Morrow in 2009, was a strong CEO, according to analyst Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Research.

"His contribution would be more hands-on," Paolini said. "He knows the company in a more direct way, probably, than McCaw does."

Though Clearwire is continuing to build out its mobile WiMax network, the first major deployment of the technology in the U.S. and the largest in the world, at the moment the company faces more business and financial than technological challenges. McCaw, a wireless pioneer who helped to create Nextel Communications, may be better suited to trailblazing innovative new companies than to addressing the business issues of established ones, said analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates.

"What they really need is finance guys," Gold said. "McCaw was a name brand, but I'm not sure that he was the right guy at this particular time to take them to the next step." In Wolff, Clearwire may have found that chairman, he said. Wolff has served as a co-chairman in the past, focusing on financial and strategic issues. He has remained involved in McCaw's Eagle River company.

One of Clearwire's biggest challenges is its complicated relationship with Sprint, which owns a majority stake in the company and sells a WiMax service that runs on Clearwire's network, Paolini said. For example, Sprint subscribers with WiMax phones pay a certain amount each month for access to Clearwire's network whether or not they live in a market where it's available. How much of Sprint's revenue should go to the company that supplies its WiMax network has been a matter of contention, Paolini said.

However, the best solution to the company's financial problems may be yet another relationship with a large carrier, such as T-Mobile USA, Paolini said. Teaming up with T-Mobile could provide a major injection of the capital needed to further expand the network, while also drawing in more potential customers through T-Mobile's subscriber relationships and marketing efforts, she said. But making that work while continuing its relationship with Sprint, a direct competitor to T-Mobile, would be even more difficult than the current arrangement.

"It's a huge opportunity, but it's not an easy agreement or business model for anybody involved," Paolini said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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