Clearwire has changed terms of a deal with Intel that required support of WiMax through late 2011: GigaOm reports that on the call, Clearwire's CFO said that the prior contract required Clearwire to use WiMax through 28 November 2011. Now, either party can back out with 30 days' notice on that commitment.
Intel has driven WiMax to its current state after apparently having dissatisfaction in the early 2000s with the direction, nature, and speed of cell carriers' drive towards mobile broadband. Without Intel, WiMax wouldn't have proceeded in the US, and perhaps would have stalled worldwide.
At the time of Intel's first real commitment, 3G networks were slow and hardly built out in much of the world, and the roadmap for faster speeds wasn't fully in place. A CDMA and GSM battle was still underway in the US, and LTE was still on the drawing boards.
The 2010 landscape is entirely different. AT&T and Verizon have the spectrum to deploy LTE and the commitment. LTE is being piloted all over, and is moving into production.
While hundreds of WiMax networks are in place worldwide--in part due to its availability, relative ease, and fairly wide range of equipment across many bands and encodings--most carriers plan a migration to LTE. In fact, WiMax in its next version and LTE may not be that far apart in terms of the underlying technology, just the encoding mechanisms.
Intel, Google, some cable giants, and others have a big investment in the Clearwire portion of Sprint (as does Sprint itself), while Motorola, Samsung, Zyxel, and others have poured billions into hardware development for consumer and carrier gear. But if it's not going to wind up being cost effective or competitive, a transition to LTE makes more sense than spending billions more heedlessly.
With a transformed market, Intel may be less concerned about bandwidth and content control, walled gardens, limited speeds, and other factors that led it down this decade-long path.
The biggest problem I see with Clearwire switching to LTE is that while Clearwire has extensive 2.5 GHz holdings that would let them deploy nationally with high data rates, the 2.5 GHz range requires about four times as many base stations as AT&T and Verizon's 700 MHz range to provide the same footprint, while penetrating indoors more poorly.
It may be that less equipment is needed at each location in 2.5 GHz because more gear is spread out than for 700 MHz towers, but securing real estate and operating four times as many nodes introduces fixed costs above any savings in having less gear in each place.
Fascinating development. Were Clearwire to exit WiMax, that would put a pall over the issue of producing devices in enough quantity for that technology.