Clearwire hires big-carrier CEO

Clearwire has named former Vodafone executive William Morrow as its new CEO in a move that may spur its hoped-for transition from a scrappy competitive service provider into a nationwide carrier that can take on AT&T and Verizon.

Morrow, 49, began leading the company Monday. Founding CEO Benjamin Wolff became vice chairman, sitting alongside current chairman Craig McCaw. The move came just days after Clearwire laid out plans to reach 120 million potential customers with WiMax networks in more than 80 markets across the U.S. by the end of next year. Today, Clearwire operates just two WiMax networks, in Baltimore and Portland, Oregon, along with about 50 pre-WiMax wireless data networks in the U.S. and Europe.

Clearwire is attempting to build a national mobile data network using standards-based WiMax technology as America's two biggest carriers move toward LTE (Long-Term Evolution) for their next leap in speed. A head start for WiMax that measured in years may only have months left now, as Verizon Wireless has said it will launch commercial LTE service next year.

The new CEO comes to Clearwire after years of experience in the telecommunications establishment. Most recently he was president and CEO of utility Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco, but he has also held several senior positions within global mobile operator Vodafone Group. Morrow has served as CEO of Vodafone Europe and of Vodafone U.K., and as president of Vodafone KK of Japan. He has also been president of Japan Telecom and held high-level positions at AirTouch International.

Wolff managed Clearwire when it was a wireless broadband startup, later pooling radio spectrum across the country with Sprint Nextel for a planned nationwide network and eventually merging with Sprint's WiMax division. He helped Clearwire raise more than US$6 billion in equity and debt financing, according to Clearwire. Big-name partners including Comcast, Intel, Time Warner Cable and Google invested $3.2 billion in the company last year.

But Wolff's tenure as CEO wasn't all smooth sailing. Just as the merger with Sprint was moving toward a November close, credit markets froze up. After the deal was finished, the new Clearwire delayed some market launches in a pause that Wolff said helped the company work out its priorities. Clearwire will set the pace of its buildout based on the cost and availability of capital, the company said last week, though executives said it has enough cash to last into 2011.

McCaw, a wireless business pioneer who founded a cellular company that later became AT&T Wireless, praised Wolff in a press release Monday.

"He also has the wisdom and foresight to recognize that in these unprecedented times, a company can't have too much talent," McCaw added. "Together, we have recruited Bill Morrow to lead the Clearwire team."

Wolff will also continue as president of McCaw's investment company, Eagle River.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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