Sprint Plans 4G Future Without Clearwire

Sprint today said it plans to spend over $5 billion to upgrade its network, in a move that could lay the groundwork for a future without Clearwire, its fourth-generation, or 4G, wireless partner.

Over the next three to five years, the Overland Park, Kan.-based carrier will make improvements to open up the option to migrate to a competing 4G standard, known as Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, that both Verizon and AT&T will use. Sprint’s current 4G service, operated by Clearwire, uses a different standard, called WiMax.

“We can add different frequency spectrums or add different technologies to take full advantage of the spectrum we currently have, the spectrum that Clearwire operates and anything else that we may get over the next 10 years,” said Bob Azzi, Sprint’s senior vice president.

Sprint, which owns 54 percent of Clearwire, has been at odds over Clearwire’s 4G deployment. In October, three Sprint executives stepped down from the wireless network provider’s board, amid escalating tensions due to differences in retail strategy and Clearwire’s funding problems.

A month later, Kirkland, Wash.-based Clearwire announced it would cut its workforce by 15 percent, stop new store openings and suspend the launch of 4G service in markets such as Denver and Miami, due to a cash crunch.

Sprint, meanwhile, has been debating whether to sink more money into the contentious partnership. The carrier has also been actively encouraging T-Mobile to infuse funds into Clearwire, in return for an equity stake and a wider 4G footprint.

As part of its future network plans, Sprint today announced plans to shut down its beleaguered Nextel network starting in 2013.

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