During its first-quarter conference call last week, Clearwire once again talked up the possibility of flipping its WiMAX network to LTE, announcing that it changed the terms of an agreement it has with WiMAX evangelist and Clearwire investor Intel that once locked the operator into using WiMAX through Nov. 28, 2011.

That left much speculation and confusion as to when the nationwide WiMAX operator might make a move and whether, given its vast amount of spectrum, the operator could or would deploy both LTE and WiMAX.

Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow finally clarified — sort of — what the termination of the Intel deal meant in an interview with Cnet. "No we haven't exercised that right, and I don't see the need for us to anytime soon," he said in a response to a question about the company's plans. "We won't be deploying LTE anytime soon and definitely not before 2012, but it does give us greater flexibility."

During the CTIA Wireless 2010 trade show, Morrow said he advocates one all-IP 4G standard and that Clearwire could add LTE once it reaches the equivalency to WiMAX's capabilities. Shortly after that, Clearwire, along with vendors, asked the 3GPP to develop specs that would enable LTE's entrance into the 2.6 GHz band.

During the company's conference call with analysts, Clearwire CFO Erik Pursch said the ecosystem for WiMAX and LTE was rapidly combining and that the underlying technologies of LTE and WiMAX are similar enough that Clearwire could make a transition that wouldn't break the bank.

However, experts I've been talking to, including Dan Warren, technical director of the GSM Association, said at this point moving from WiMAX to LTE would require fundamental changes to the radio network, including a requirement to retask spectrum.

Perhaps vendors are diligently working on a way to gracefully bridge the flip from WiMAX to LTE. By 2012, however, Clearwire and its wholesale partners will have a pretty hefty embedded base of WiMAX-device users that would need to be issued new devices.

But I was thinking there is another reason Clearwire continues to posture around LTE — T-Mobile USA, an operator that at this point doesn't have a 4G strategy or the spectrum to deploy LTE. It is no secret that T-Mobile held discussions with Clearwire regarding a potential wholesale agreement. Its high-speed strategy right now consists of using HSPA+ technology. It wants, no doubt, to move to an all-IP infrastructure.

Given its enormous amount of spectrum, Clearwire could very well run both WiMAX and LTE on its network. Assuming it could use the same core network, perhaps the costs wouldn't be prohibitive. That would mean the operator could further expand its wholesale strategy that is proving out right now. It could play a valuable role in bridging the LTE coverage gap and could perhaps be a valuable asset for the public-safety community looking to forge a nationwide LTE network. That's looking quite far ahead in the future, but Clearwire has its eye on the LTE wholesale opportunity, which would represent a bigger opportunity than WiMAX in the long run. As LTE ramps up, then we could see Clearwire slowly transitioning its entire network to LTE.

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