Before we get into our deep-dive geekout on Clearwire’s 2009 subscriber numbers, it’s worthwhile to ask a simple question: A year ago, how many people gave the nascent national WiMAX provider a snowball’s chance in hell of getting this far without a major setback? Probably about the same number of people who would have predicted multiple medals for the U.S. Olympic team in Nordic skiing at the 2010 Olympics. Or put in another way — a hell of a lot fewer people than those who actually plunked down their hard-earned cash to sign up for Clearwire’s services during 2009.
Also before we get to a recap of Clearwire’s 2009 numbers, it’s important to look ahead at the company’s most important number for 2010: The number 3,770, which represents the average number of new users the company must sign up each day to reach CEO Bill Morrow’s goal of tripling Clearwire’s year-end total of 688,000 subscribers. Since it’s nearly March, Clearwire’s sales folks must be off to a good start already for their leader to be making million-plus predictions for a company that still is only just over halfway to the seven-digit subscriber mark. Anyone want to give odds on Clearwire hitting the 2.06 million subscriber mark when they report 2010 results a year from now?
Now, on to the numbers recap. You may have read various reports that focused on Clearwire meeting its goal of signing up more new 4G users in the fourth quarter of 2009 than it did during the previous three quarters. We say bully for Clearwire, which tallied 87,000 net new users in Q4 — surpassing the 81,000 net new users it signed up in quarters 1 through 3. That gives Clearwire 168,000 net new 4G users signed up in 2009 — but it is only the start of our deep dive into the company’s performance. (And remember the “net” distinction. It will matter!)
One of the more significant counts that came out of Wednesday’s call was the first official tally of 46,000 wholesale customers — this is the number of customers signed up by Clearwire reseller partners Sprint Nextel, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, users whose contracts are with those providers but whose bits travel over the Clearwire network. Given that the wholesale markets arrived in less-than-whole fashion over the course of the year, the 46K number is an impressive start — and one that should mushroom in 2010, if the Overdrive “Pocketspot” proves a hit and especially if Sprint delivers a WiMAX/3G hybrid phone as planned by summertime. It’s also interesting to note that Clearwire, and not the partners, reported the subscriber number first — maybe because it was so small when compared to the typical subscriber numbers for national providers? An interesting point to follow, perhaps, as Sprint and Comcast start selling even more WiMAX subscriptions.
One more observation, before we devolve into lists and bullet points: Reading through the company’s annual report (PDF) we saw another number that attracted our attention: Clearwire’s headcount more than doubled during 2009, increasing from 1,635 employees to 3,440 at year’s end. That’s pretty rapid growth — just another management challenge for Clearwire as it seeks those 3,770 new users a day.
OK, time for lists. Kudos to Clearwire’s media relations folks and the tireless Mike DiGioia at Clearwire’s PR firm for putting up with our repeated bad-math emails (which may still need to be corrected). If there are errors here, Clearwire and its reps are not to blame since we are taking some intuitive leaps from “official” data for some of these tallys. Onward:
Official numbers from Clearwire:
Clearwire subscriber stats as of Dec 31, 2009
* Total subscribers (including retail 4G, wholesale 4G and pre-WiMAX): 688,000
* Total pre-WiMAX customers: 250,000
* Total 4G subscribers: 438,000
* Total CLEAR 4G subscribers: 392,000
* Total wholesale 4G subscribers: 46,000
Sidecut Reports Extrapolations:
* Total new 4G customers signed up in 2009: 176,000
* Total 4G customers converted from pre-WiMAX to 4G: 216,000
Sidecut explanation: The insider-baseball geekout here is something that other media outlets either gloss over or just simply don’t understand. Over the past year, Clearwire has made a point of talking about the net new number of subscribers signed up — a total that takes the number of actual new customers and subtracts the number of customers (usually pre-WiMAX customers) who left Clearwire during the quarter. During Q1 and Q2 the company didn’t break these numbers out, reporting only 25,000 net adds and 12,000 net adds respectively. For Q3 Clearwire reported 49,000 new 4G customers and 5,000 customer losses, for a net of 44,000 new adds. For Q4 the actual new customer number was 90,000, with 3,000 in losses for a 87,000 net total. Adding up the higher figures gives us 176,000 actual retail customer acquistions during 2009, which when subtracted from the official company 4G retail subscriber number of 392,000 gives us 216,000 “old” customers who were converted into 4G customers during the course of the year.
(Why is this an important distinction? Good question. Maybe it isn’t. But it does show that the company was almost as adept at finding new customers in new and old markets as it was converting “gimme” customers, who had no real reason to object to a mainly free upgrade to a better, faster service. Editor’s note: see the comments for another caveat about my extrapolations.)
So — by then adding in the 46,000 wholesale 4G customers, you get to the company-sanctioned 4G user number of 438,000. Now the trick for Clearwire in 2010 is to flip all their old markets into 4G markets to convert another easy 250,000 users, then find another 1.126 million new users to meet their “triple dog dare” goal for 2010. See, we’ve already made that job easier!
More official Clearwire numbers:
* Total 4G Markets: 27
* Total pre-WiMAX markets: 32
* Total International Markets: 5
WiMAX markets: Atlanta and Milledgeville, GA; Baltimore; Boise; Chicago; Las Vegas; Philadelphia; Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro, NC; Honolulu and Maui, HI; Seattle and Bellingham, WA; Portland and Salem OR; and Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Abilene, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Killeen/Temple, Lubbock, Midland/Odessa, Waco and Wichita Falls, TX.
Pre-WiMAX markets: Aberdeen, WA; Anchorage; Bend, OR; Carson City, NV; Chico, CA;; Dayton, OH; Daytona Beach, FL; Duluth, MN; Eau Claire, WI; Eugene, OR; Grants Pass, OR; Jacksonville, FL; Klamath Falls, OR; Lewiston, OR; Longview, TX; Medford, OR; Merced, CA; Modesto, CA; Nashville, TN; Redding, CA; Reno, NV; Richmond, VA; Rochester, NY; Roseburg, OR; St. Augustine, FL; St. Cloud, MN; Stockton, CA; Syracuse, NY; Tri-Cities, WA; Visalia, CA; Wenatchee, WA; Yakima, WA
European markets: Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Poland