Some Questions for Clearwire

Since Clearwire Corp.’s (NASDAQ: CLWR) upcoming earnings call on March 5 is its first as a fully formed nationwide WiMax provider, there should be plenty of interesting details that emerge from the financial filings. But there are some bigger-picture questions that need to be asked or answered, if we are to get a ‘Clear’ picture of where the provider is headed in 2009.

Somewhat in an order of importance, here are five we think are among the most pressing questions for Clearwire to clear up on Thursday’s call:

1. Where else will Clearwire launch services, and when? This is easily the biggest what-up of all — by shrouding its rollout plans in secrecy since closing its WiMax-assets merger with Sprint, Clearwire has brought more drama to the table. Due to FCC conditions regarding its 2.5 GHz spectrum, Clearwire needs to offer services to at least 10 markets by this August, and then 10 more by 2011; the key is how and where. The aggressiveness — or not — of Clearwire’s rollout plan will be the most-telling referendum on the company’s confidence, so in many ways there is no information more important than the rollout plan.

2. How many subscribers have signed up in Baltimore? Since Clearwire’s services in Portland, Ore., didn’t launch until Jan. 6, the company probably will duck reporting any numbers from that market. But there should be no such excuses for breaking out signups from the Sprint-launched “Xohm” services in Baltimore, which have been live since Sept. 29 (and which Clearwire inherited when it absorbed Sprint’s WiMax operations). Haven’t seen any predictions but our guess is that the number will be small — in the tens of thousands — with anything over 20,000 a moral victory. Since there really isn’t anything to compare it to, the Baltimore number is a bit of a wild card; the only meaningful comparison we can target is Clearwire’s last quarter of 2007, when it signed up approximately 47,000 new subscribers to its pre-WiMax services in a number of smaller markets. (Clearwire’s numbers for 2008 don’t really reflect much since the company spent most of the year retrenching for its eventual merger.)

3. Where’s Barry? Before the Sprint-Clearwire merger became final, Sprint’s Barry West was a very visible face behind the WiMax efforts, appearing at trade shows and doing interviews to beat the WiMax drum. Since the merger, however — not much has been heard from Mr. West, who was conspicuous by his absence at the Portland launch event. Ostensibly West is the President of Clearwire and therefore the No. 2 guy on the management totem pole, but we are wondering if West’s seat-of-the-pants deployment style is a fit with the more buttoned-down persona of Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff. Does Clearwire need West, or vice versa? Let’s hope we hear more on Thursday. UPDATE, 3/2: Looks like Barry is sticking around, since he is now scheduled to give a keynote address at CTIA. (hat tip to Susan Johnston at Clearwire for the pointer)

4. Where are the devices? At the Portland launch there was a hallway full of WiMax-enabled device demos, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything beyond a USB dongle, an express card, or a few scattered WiMax-enabled laptops available out in the wild. No Mobile Internet Devices, no netbooks, no smartphones — which means no real buzz or differentiation for Clearwire’s WiMax versus existing 3G cellular services. The mobile Wi-Fi/WiMax router Clearwire sort-of unveiled in Portland would be a plus, but if that is all there is, that’s not much news.

5. When will Xohm go away? It might seem like nit-picking, but we really believe that every day the Xohm brand lives on is another day wasted for Clear. If Clearwire is truly planning to roll the Baltimore services into its overall brand portfolio (as it said previously), why does the Xohm name persist, both as the functional Baltimore website and in partner marketing as well? (The Toshiba WiMax laptop ordering pages, for example, still point to Xohm web pages, not Clear or Clearwire pages) Maybe it won’t be talked about during a financial call, but to us the persistence of Xohm is a continual reminder of all the unfinished work ahead for Clearwire.

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