Sprint willing to fill Clearwire's coffers

CEO Dan Hesse said Sprint will invest more money in the WiMax operator if needed and declined comment on Sprint buyout reports

Sprint Nextel is willing to invest more money in Clearwire, the WiMax operator it helped create last year, and plans to maintain its 51 percent ownership in the company, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said Thursday.

Clearwire was formed last year from the wireless broadband company that bore the name and Sprint's own WiMax business. Despite $14.5 billion in initial funding, including $3.2 billion from Google and several cable operators, Clearwire's current war chest is not expected to cover the cost of its entire planned national network. Its WiMax network has officially launched in fewer than 20 markets and the company intends to reach as many as 120 million potential U.S. subscribers in 80 markets by the end of 2010.

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"If the funding is not there, we are clearly willing and able to step up to our fair share of whatever that funding requirement is," Hesse said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York.

"Our goal with Clearwire is just that they keep building out that 4G network very, very quickly," Hesse said.

The money Sprint invests in Clearwire is money it would otherwise be spending to build up capacity in its 3G network, Hesse said. WiMax, which is designed to deliver higher speed than Sprint's 3G EvDO network, is a more economical way to build out mobile data capacity in a given market, he said. Clearwire says its network delivers between 4Mbps and 6Mbps to each subscriber.

"Once 4G is launched in a market, our capex in that market basically stops," he said.

Hesse expects Sprint customers with 3G data cards and laptops to flock to the WiMax service, with built-in roaming capability on its 3G network, as soon as the network in each city is built out.

Hesse declined to comment on reports that his company is in talks to be acquired by Deutsche Telekom but said he believes service providers would have a harder time consolidating under the Obama administration. They would probably face a more arduous federal approval process and have to make more concessions than before, he said.

"The smart money says that it'll be clearly more difficult to consolidate with the new administration than with previous administrations," Hesse said.

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