This may not be hard to do, according to Paolini. With a single baseband chipset for both WiMax and LTE, the incremental cost of supporting the additional technology should be only about $10 per handset, she said. At least one 4G silicon vendor, Sequans Communications, is committed to producing these types of chipsets.
As a wholesale carrier without Sprint as a partner, Clearwire doesn't have much potential, Marshall of Tolaga Research said. However, combining its spectrum with Sprint's next network, which will be designed to accommodate multiple technologies, could be a way to succeed. Under current plans, that same network would also host LightSquared's LTE infrastructure, but the three carriers might be able to become a credible challenger to Verizon and AT&T if Sprint could take charge of the effort, Marshall said.
For consumers, Clearwire's LTE promises, like LightSquared's, probably don't represent LTE nirvana in the near future. But Clearwire's plan isn't likely to leave its existing WiMax customers hanging, either, Paolini said. Subscribers are too valuable to push away for a technology change.
Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T will offer growing 4G networks, while Sprint's complicated dance with Clearwire and LightSquared may put it even farther behind the top two carriers. Whatever combination may result from these maneuvers, Sprint is likely to have an underdog's incentive to offer good deals.
"If you're more at the value end of the market, Sprint might make more sense to you," Marshall said.