WiMAX and LTE have been at odds for years, but what has been a cold war should get hot when Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) introduces the first smartphone for its WiMAX network in the first half of this year.

According to Forbes, which first reported the news last week, Sprint has assigned Taiwan's HTC -- maker of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Nexus One -- the task of designing a WiMAX-ready Android smartphone. A surprising choice when you consider that Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) selected Sprint Nextel as the exclusive carrier for its Pre smartphone.

Even so, Sprint's decision to use HTC may have less to do with Palm and more to do with Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) and Sprint's other WiMAX partners, such as Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and, of course, Google.

Positioning for battle and handicapping a winner
Clearwire will play the largest role in this rollout. Already, its would-be national WiMAX network covers 30 million people. The count is expected to quadruple to 120 million by year's end, Forbes reports.

Which telco wins in this arms race? Fools like AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) more than they do Sprint Nextel, even though, of the three, Sprint appears to have the sturdiest balance sheet:

Metric

Sprint Nextel

AT&T

Verizon

CAPS stars (5 max)

**

****

****

Total ratings

1,879

5,001

3,764

Percent bulls

77.9%

94.1%

94.3%

Percent bears

22.1%

5.9%

5.7%

Bullish pitches

278 out of 360

756 out of 806

649 out of 697

Cash and investments*

$9,013 mil.

$6,723 mil.

$6,034 mil.

Total debt*

$21,061 mil.

$72,081 mil.

$62,256 mil.

Current ratio*

1.3

0.7

0.8

Sources: CAPS, Yahoo! Finance.
*Figures current as of Dec. 31.

It'll be an interesting throw-down if nothing else. Verizon will have an LTE deployment ready by year's end, and it has several smartphone partners.

AT&T, meanwhile, says it plans to shift to 4G by no later than 2011. But that won't last. With Sprint's blitz, I'm expecting the carrier to announce the schedule for an LTE-ready iPhone by Christmas at the latest -- just enough meat to convince consumers and businesses to wait rather than switch to Sprint-Clearwire.

In the end, it doesn't much matter whether Sprint Nextel is ready for war with its telecom rivals. One's coming. Having a WiMAX phone, and a committed partner in Clearwire, makes the carrier a dangerous adversary for its larger rivals.

Does WiMAX give Sprint the edge it needs to beat its larger peers? Is Clearwire a multibagger in the making? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.