Intel Buys Growth

Editor's note: The previous version of this article stated that Intel is investing $150 million in Clearwire. This is incorrect. Intel is investing an undisclosed sum from a $150 million wireless broadband venture capital fund into Clearwire. We apologize for and regret the error.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) is beating the wireless drum. Its decision this week to throw some money at wireless service venture Clearwire shows that Intel is serious about broadband wireless. But the deal also flags one of the chip giant's potential weak spots -- delivering growth that investors expect.

Closely held by billionaire telecom investor Craig McCaw, Clearwire will build a network based on the emerging "Wimax" wireless standard. McCaw has an ambitious plan to set up a network offering wireless broadband Internet service.

The rationale for directing a portion of its $150 million wireless broadband venture capital fund at Clearwire is pretty simple: Intel sees Clearwire as an early adopter of the Wimax technology powered by Intel chips. Besides creating demand for Intel's wireless chips, Wimax will drive demand for PCs that also use Intel chips.

Investment rationale aside, this kind of move should raise questions about Intel's future growth prospects. To keep expanding, does Intel need to create customers for its products?

Intel suffers the curse of big numbers. With annual sales expected to exceed $33 billion, it's awfully hard for the company to grow sales at 12% per year. To reach double-digit, or even high single-digit, growth rates, Intel needs new markets for its chips.

The trouble is, there just aren't that many sources of growth right now. So, rather than waiting around for new markets that can use its chips, Intel plans to help create them by investing in customers like Clearwire.

There is nothing wrong with trying to kick-start demand by investing in prospective customers except that it is costly, payoffs can come slowly, and it has its share of risks. Intel has a good shot at creating new markets, but the returns won't come tomorrow. Clearwire, for example, is in the early stages of development and engineers are still struggling to develop standard specifications for the Wimax technology. It's going to be a few years before Intel sees signs of growth.

It's also hard to read this kind of market. In the time that it takes to get growth going, things can change or not go as planned. Will Wimax enter the market without a fight from competing technologies? That's hard to say right now. Investors should keep in mind Intel's ballooning inventory this year. At least part of that is the fallout of overestimating demand in burgeoning markets.

Roughly 70% of Intel's R&D spending is devoted to developing processors to serve broadband wireless markets. Investors need to ask themselves: Is Intel going to find the growth it needs in this market, or will it need to make it?

Fool contributorBen McClure hails from the Great White North. Ben doesn't own shares of any company mentioned here.


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