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Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR ) was born to bet big on WiMAX wireless broadband technology. But maybe that's the wrong horse to choose in the race between WiMAX and LTE -- and Clearwire is only now coming around to that conclusion.
CEO Bill Morrow took the stage for a keynote at the CTIA wireless association trade show and ended up giving me that impression. In response to questions from the show floor, Morrow noted that he can see the rivaling LTE and WiMAX solutions merging into one technology down the road, and that his network was built to accommodate installing LTE equipment alongside the WiMAX stuff if need be.
These admissions smell like desperation to me. Clearwire is the current leader in 4G technology after getting a leg up on the competition with early installations. Still, Clearwire aims for 120 million potential customers served by the end of the year, while Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) Wireless is looking at 100 million customers reached by the same signpost, using the LTE standard.
AT&T (NYSE: T ) is lagging behind a bit, but it has the advantage of running a 3G network that uses similar technology to the new 4G upgrade, so it can grow in pieces rather than replacing the old network with an entirely new one (which is what Verizon is doing). WiMAX is big in Europe and Asia, but Clearwire is American and can't go by international trends.
The fact that the two largest networks in North America are going with LTE should make Clearwire nervous. Since the two 4G technologies are incompatible with each other today, don’t look for many consumer-ready gadgets that can connect to both of them. And since LTE has a much bigger footprint in the not-too-far future, it stands to reason that Clearwire's WiMAX could be the odd technology out in many cases.
Clearwire has the blessing and financial backing of several very smart partners, including Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , and Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) . But even smart people make bad bets sometimes, and I believe that Google, champion of the eternal underdog, would invest in an LTE provider if that were the less-accepted alternative. Or if, like Clearwire’s WiMax, LTE were being sold to consumers in data-only packages.
The technical feasibility of making LTE and WiMAX sing the same song escapes me, but the fact that Morrow is asking for it makes me nervous for his sake. Will WiMAX make it big or fizzle out, dear Fool? Share your insights in the comment box below, please.