WiMAX, the next-generation technology that will replace aging Wi-Fi networks with smarter, faster Internet access, is slated to launch in the Bay Area in 2010. But a small cadre of software developers will be able to access the network much sooner.

A twenty square mile network, dubbed the WiMAX Innovation Network, “will be announced in the coming weeks”, we learned from Clearwire today. Setting up a network in the Bay Area has proven harder than expected. Previously Clearwire had planned to give developers access by late summer of this year. Sources had told us the launch was to come as early as last week. It seems now that the rollout date has been moved. Instead of blanketing downtown San Francisco, the first Bay Area network will be based around the Mountain View area. It’s no coincidence that two of Clearwire’s investors — Google and Intel — are in that area. Sprint already operates WiMAX networks in Las Vegas, Boston, Atlanta and Portland, Oregon.

The WiMAX Innovation Network, as it has been dubbed, is planned to initially cover more than 20 square miles in Silicon Valley. According to a statement from Clearwire, “To qualify developers must register for Clearwire’s developer program and describe the products or business ideas they wish to pursue.” Clearwire will sell qualified developers a WiMAX USB modem for $49.99, with one year of free WiMAX service from Sprint.

Sprint and Clearwire plan to deploy WiMAX service in another 10 cities sometime in September 2009. This top-down rollout is a strategy to bring WiMAX to the top one-third of cities that make up the U.S. market, allowing Sprint to offer a high-speed alternative to Verizon’s LTE technology to about 120 million potential customers.

Clearwire backers Google, Sprint, Cisco and Intel expect that developers will be able to build next-generation mobile applications that showcase data-intensive applications and services which WIMAX reportedly is able to support. Intel had written off $950M of its Clearwire investment in January as the valuation of Clearwire dropped.

Most obviously, mobile carriers are looking for ways to deliver video to phones. They see it as the most likely way to get existing customers to pay more, and to get potential customers to switch from another network. Brian Higgins, who handles next-generation products and hardware for Verizon Wireless, recently told VentureBeat, “Once we get to the LTE network, what we will ultimately see is much more latitude for video-based applications and data-intensive applications. This will be the first high-end network which will support mobile video in a robust manner — true video.” With its investment in WiMAX, Sprint and the other Clearwire backers are hoping to prove Verizon wrong.

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