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Sprint begins its big split from WiMax

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A few years ago, Sprint inked a big partnership with Clearwire and took a risk on a fresh high-speed cellular technology called WiMax. This helped it become the first wireless carrier with a 4G network. The carrier launched its first WiMax-enabled handset, the HTC EVO 4G, way back in mid 2010. Sadly, the love affair is ending just two years later. In mid 2012, Sprint is expected to launch its own network based on a competing 4G technology called LTE, and now, according to FierceWireless, Sprint’s VP of Networks has said that Sprint will not launch any more WiMax devices…ever. Instead, it is patching together a new LTE network with LightSquared, Samsung, Clearwire, and possibly other partners. 

The split has been a long time coming. Sprint never achieved the competitive advantage it hoped to with 4G WiMax. Speeds on its network, while much faster than 3G, were never impressive enough to turn the company’s fortunes around and gain it a lot of subscribers or recognition. In addition, Verizon’s 4G LTE network, which launched about a year ago, has attained much higher speeds than Sprint’s network. With AT&T and T-Mobile hopping on board LTE as well, Sprint is quickly becoming the odd duck. And when you’re in 3rd place already, you don’t want to be seen as behind. 

clearwire-coverage-map-march-2012

The partnership with Clearwire has also been somewhat strained. Though the service reached about 27 cities by the end of 2010, today, it has has only expanded to about 77. While it definitely has been growing, for whatever reason, Clearwire has not been able to keep up with Verizon or even T-Mobile’s fast HSPA+ network rollout. Though it’s been almost two full years, Sprint 4G WiMax still hasn’t broken outside of major cities. Almost no rural areas have it. 

Then there’s the problem of branding. What is Clearwire? Most people do not know. They know what Sprint is, but they don’t need or want to know about Clearwire. But that hasn’t stopped Sprint employees from talking about it. On several occasions, I have asked Sprint employees at stores and kiosks about the company’s 4G network, where it is, and when it might roll out to new areas, and they continually mention Clearwire. It gives the impression that Sprint doesn’t actually have its own 4G network, but is borrowing one from another company (which is true, kind of). And when Sprint employees tell customers that Sprint has no idea about when or where new markets will open up because “Clearwire is in charge of that,” (not an exact quote) it doesn’t give a good impression. 

So now that the era of Sprint WiMax is ending, new questions are emerging. The first Sprint LTE handsets are beginning to hit shelves, but when, precisely, will Sprint actually launch its LTE network? It says that it’s coming in mid 2012, but we don’t have a complete timeline yet. Will it be able to keep up with the rollouts of its competitors, despite its financial woes, which date back  to its horribly executed merger with Nextel half a decade ago?

Update 4-24-2012: Clarified that Sprint and Clearwire are not completely breaking up. Sprint will utilize some Clearwire LTE in its network, but is not relying on it completely. 

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