Clearwire and Sprint Nextel announced that they have completed the transaction to combine their next-generation wireless Internet businesses. One interesting aspect to the deal that might affect the public-safety sector is the declaration from Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff that the WiMAX-focused operator also would consider deploying LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology down the road.

With the closing, Sprint contributed all of its 2.5 GHz spectrum and its WiMAX-related assets, including its XOHM business, to Clearwire. In addition, Clearwire has received a $3.2-billion cash investment from Comcast, Intel, Time Warner Cable, Google and Bright House Networks. The transaction with Sprint and the new cash investment were completed on the terms originally announced on May 7, 2008. The new company retains the name Clearwire and remains headquartered in Kirkland, Washington.

In a recent conference call, Wolff said the operator will go down two 4G technology paths—WiMAX and LTE—if it makes sense for it to do so in the future.

“Mobile WiMAX and LTE have a lot in common--far more in common than either of these technologies have with today's 2G or 3G technologies," Wolff said. "Consumers really don't care about the technology.”

The move could have bearing on the re-auction of the 700 MHz D-block airwaves that would be paired with public-safety spectrum in the band to create a shared network. The FCC recently adopted draft rules for the re-auction that allows commercial operators to bid on either a nationwide license or regional licenses, and to pick any 4G mobile broadband technology—WiMAX or LTE—to deploy in the band. The technology that will win in the D block likely will depend heavily on which technology is winning in the marketplace.

The 4G momentum during the last year has moved between WiMAX and LTE. WiMAX has been hyped heavily for nearly two years as the technology that will unleash the mobile broadband era. Clearwire is first out of the gate with mobile WiMAX in Baltimore, inherited from Sprint, and a planned deployment in Portland, Ore. early next year. But Clearwire hasn’t given any specific details about deployments beyond those two markets in terms of deployments only to say that additional markets are in various stages of design and construction.

Meanwhile, LTE, once thought to be about two years behind WiMAX in terms of commercial readiness, has gained favor with the world’s largest operators, including Verizon and AT&T. And there are several operators in Europe that are pushing vendors to get the technology out quicker so they can capitalize on demand for wireless broadband services. Some vendors are claiming the technology will be ready next year.

How quickly Clearwire rolls out WiMAX is critical here. If it embarks on a slower rollout and LTE comes on strong, the operator could very well continue operating the few WiMAX markets it already has and begin deploying LTE going forward. With WiMAX’s biggest backer to date then favoring LTE, the economies of scale certainly look even better for that technology. Given that realistic scenario, it may be wise for the public-safety community to insist on LTE operator partners.

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