Clearwire quietly launches WiMax in Miami

The carrier is now foregoing marketing and retail sales in some markets

Clearwire began offering commercial WiMax service in South Florida on Monday, the first time it has launched in a new market without opening retail stores or buying local advertising.

Also on Monday, the company introduced its service in the Los Angeles area and in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. In those markets, Clearwire will advertise the service, called Clear, and devices and services will be available in dedicated Clear stores or kiosks and at retail partners such as Best Buy and RadioShack. But in South Florida, where Clearwire will offer service in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Coral Gables and other cities, consumers will have to buy devices and sign up for service by phone or online.

The company announced earlier this month that it would forego local marketing and retail sales in some markets to save cash. Clearwire, which lost US$139 million in the third quarter, said it may sell assets or borrow more money in order to fund its WiMax network beyond the current build plan. The company also said it would delay the release of its first branded smartphone. At the same time, it said it would lay off 15 percent of its employees, substantially reduce its contractor workforce, and suspend preliminary work on markets beyond its current build plan. Clearwire plans to reach 120 million potential customers by the end of this year.

The latest network launches bring Clearwire's reach to 103 million U.S. residents in 68 markets, according to company spokesman Mike DiGioia. In Southern California, its service will be available across most of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, in adjacent Orange County as far south as Irvine, and in the Inland Empire, including Ontario. Coverage will reach more than 11 million people, according to the company. In South Florida, the coverage area will stretch from North Fort Lauderdale across the South Miami metropolitan area, encompassing 3.8 million people. In the three large Ohio metropolitan areas, service will also reach about 3.8 million, according to Clearwire. The company offers a detailed coverage map online.

Also on Monday, Clearwire announced it would commercially launch 4G service in the San Francisco Bay Area on Dec. 28.

Clearwire's service is designed for use in homes and offices as well as on the move. The company advertises speeds of 3M bps (bits per second) to 6M bps, with bursts over 10M bps. Service typically starts at $35 per month for home service and $45 per month for a mobile plan. As part of a limited-time promotion, customers who sign up for a two-year contract by midnight Monday can buy a Clear Spot 4G Wi-Fi hub for $20.

Smartphones for the WiMax service are sold by Sprint Nextel, the majority shareholder in Clearwire, which also resells the service. Cable operators, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, also resell access to the WiMax network. Those partners are free to conduct their own marketing efforts in the markets where Clear does not.

Clearwire still has a head start on larger U.S. carriers in offering faster, next-generation networks often advertised as "4G." However, T-Mobile USA is gradually expanding a network using HSPA+ technology and Verizon Wireless has said it will offer LTE (Long-Term Evolution) mobile service to 110 million people in 38 markets by the end of this year.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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