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Clearwire stayed ahead in big year for WiMax

2009 was a very big year for Clearwire, as the wireless Internet provider took its ambitious rollout of mobile WiMax from just two cities to nearly 30 markets.

After years of planning and false starts, a national 4G (fourth-generation) mobile data network began to take shape in the U.S., and in terms of launching commercial services, the rollout is on schedule. Clearwire, formed last year through the merger of a pre-WiMax service provider of the same name and Sprint Nextel's Xohm WiMax business, is in 27 markets now and has the capital it needs to reach 120 million people by the end of next year, according to Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert.

Clearwire offers wireless Internet access designed to work in homes and offices and go with users as they travel around within its coverage area. The WiMax service, called Clear, is advertised with speeds of 3M bps (bits per second) to 6M bps, though slower plans are available at lower prices. Regular rates start at $25 per month for 1M bps in a home and $45 per month for unlimited mobile access at 3-6Mbps, both with two-year commitments. Clear is available in major cities including Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Portland, Oregon.

Though majority-owned by Sprint and backed by Intel, Google and three large cable operators, Clearwire is, effectively, the cutting-edge startup of the U.S. 4G industry. Using a technology that came out of the data networking world rather than the telecommunications realm, Clearwire and its partners are taking on AT&T and Verizon for video, voice, data and mobile services. However, this year the company did bring in a new CEO from the mobile operator establishment. William Morrow, who replaced Benjamin Wolff in March, is a former CEO of Vodafone Europe and Vodafone U.K. (Wolff remains vice chairman.)

As it wrapped up the third quarter, Clearwire had about 173,000 subscribers to its WiMax service, with a total of 555,000 customers including users of its older, pre-WiMax offering. The company said it expected to sign up that many again in the fourth quarter alone, as commercial service launched in several more markets.

Those are still tiny numbers in the U.S. broadband industry, and Clearwire has had its share of stumbles this year. Many subscribers took to Web forums such as DSLreports.com to complain that their WiMax service had been slow and inconsistent, with frequent outages. Some complained to state consumer protection agencies that the service didn't perform as advertised and was difficult to cancel.

“The Clear salesman told me the service would work at my address. It did not. But when I attempted to cancel, they said I owed more money — for a service they could not provide. I have asked for a full refund, but they refuse to provide that,” Portland resident Paul Koberstein wrote in September to the Oregon Department of Justice. The department said every time it contacted Clearwire about a consumer complaint, the problem was solved promptly.

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