Why it’s too early to call the WiMax deal a disaster

Updated

Well, TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld certainly isn’t pulling his punches. Last week, while most reporters (including me) were writing enthusiastically about the new partnership between Sprint and Clearwire to build a mobile wireless network using WiMax technology, Schonfeld slammed the deal as “a disaster waiting to happen.” Then he followed up on Friday with even more reasons why the deal is a bad idea.

So did I jump the gun? Was I (along with Eric Schmidt, chief executive at Google, which invested in the deal), “snookered”? I’m not convinced, nor were a couple wireless experts VentureBeat spoke to. Schonfeld certainly does a compelling and thorough job of outlining the many risks and unknowns involved in the deal, but he may be missing the bigger picture: Despite the risks, the deal is a calculated gamble that could pay off.

Schonfeld’s biggest argument is that WiMax has until now been a “fixed” wireless technology (in other words, it provides wireless service in your home and office), rather than mobile, and it hasn’t proven itself as a workable business in that field, either. For example, Clearwire’s network will be the heart of the new partnership, yet Clearwire lost $727 million last year. Also, in order to work, WiMax chips must be installed on laptops and cell phones, which hasn’t happened much yet.

These are all fair points, but I’d argue that collectively they mean the fate of the partnership is unclear, not that it’s a guaranteed failure. For one thing, it’s a mistake to assume that Clearwire and WiMax’s history are good predictors for how this new company (which will also be called Clearwire) will perform. After all, the deal brings plenty of new players — such as Google, Intel Capital, Comcast and Time Warner, who are all investors — into the mix, not to mention $3.2 billion of fresh funding.

“[Schonfeld is] assuming that Clearwire’s current model will be the one going forward, which is highly unlikely,” says Paul Grim of SunBridge Partners. “The name on HQ may be Clearwire, but the $3.2 billion raised suggests the other parties may have a say in how things play out.”

It’s also worth noting that WiMax may be relatively unproven, but the new company will still be deploying ahead of the competing LTE technology, which is a smart move. As Intel Capital’s Arvind Sodhani told us, “We can’t wait three years.” (Keep in mind that Sodhani has a horse in the race, since Intel is a leading provider of WiMax chips.)

Finally, as Rich Wong of Accel Partners told us, the investment makes sense as a calculated gamble as part of Google’s efforts to ensure open mobile networks.

“Consider that one of their alternatives would have been to try and build a complete network off of 700 Mhz spectrum,” Wong said. “This is a far more cost-effective way of driving to this form of open standard.”

So, yes, that’s a lot of money to pour into an unproven technology. But there are plenty of reasons to be excited too, and I’ll wait for more warning signs before joining in TechCrunch’s doom and gloom.

Update: It’s worth noting that Clearwire (the old Clearwire, not the new company that will be formed by the partnership) stock has been rising for most of today (May 13) — as of 1pm Pacific, it’s up around 5 percent from the opening price of $12.81. Now, there may have been some other Clearwire-related news yesterday (like, say, the release of decent Q1 financial data), but until someone can prove otherwise, I’m taking full credit. [Image from Marketwatch]