$3.2 Billion WiMax Deal Goes Through. Take Cover.

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The deal to combine Sprint Nextel’s and Clearwire’s fledgling WiMax businesses that was rumored last March is finally expected to go through. Comcast and Intel are supposed to put in $1 billion each; Time Warner Cable, $550 million; Google, $500 million; and regional cable provider Bright House Networks, $100 million. The new company, which will be valued at $12 $14.5 billion, will be run by Clearwire and take its name.

As I said before, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Sprint and Clearwire need the deal to try to salvage the billions they’ve already sunk into their money-losing WiMax networks. But putting more cooks into the kitchen with different WiMax aspirations is not going to help. Google wants more wireless broadband alternatives for its planned mobile apps and advertising. Whereas the cable companies want a way to compete against mobile phone operators encroaching on their turf. As I wrote last March:

WiMax is a promising technology and these are early days. But even an extra $3 billion won’t be enough. Building out a nationwide WiMax network could cost as much as $8 billion to $12 billion. And there could be more technical hiccups.

I can see why Google might throw its hat into the ring here—anything to promote more broadband wireless networks. But Comcast and Time Warner Cable should stay away. The logic behind the investment seems to be that the cable companies could use the WiMax network to counter the moves by Verizon and AT&T into their turf (with TV service over phone lines). It is being suggested that the cable companies would be able to launch their own white-label mobile phone and high-speed Internet services over WiMax.

Here’s where that logic breaks down: Verizon and AT&T have a huge head start and customer lock-in when it comes to cell phone service. WiMax mobile phones would take decades to chip away at that even if they do offer faster data speeds. Today, Clearwire is only offering at-home phone service, not mobile. As for broadband Internet and home phone services, Comcast and Time Warner already compete effectively against the phone companies today with their alternative services over cable.

I hope that I’m wrong and that this new consortium will bring cheap WiMax to us all. Because the technology is very promising. Unfortunately, the business is not.

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