Clearwire may have to delay its network expansion if it fails to close a funding gap of about $2 billion, dealing a setback to investors such as Intel and Google that want to break the phone companies' dominance of wireless Internet.

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Clearwire may have to delay its network expansion if it fails to close a funding gap of about $2 billion, dealing a setback to investors such as Intel and Google that want to break the phone companies’ dominance of wireless Internet.

Kirkland-based Clearwire said in May it would need the money to meet a goal of reaching almost half the U.S. population with its network by the end of 2010. Tighter credit and wary investors have crimped funding sources, said Chief Executive Ben Wolff, who wouldn’t say whether that would delay the project.

“It’s clear that capital markets are closed for either borrowers or companies that are trying to raise capital, regardless of what kind of company it is,” Wolff said. “We’ve seen challenges across the board.”

A delay may rob Clearwire and its partners of an advantage over carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Clearwire is using a standard called WiMax, while the phone companies have adopted the Long Term Evolution (LTE) format, which will be ready as soon as next year.

Google, Intel, Comcast and other backers put up $3.2 billion last year to fund Clearwire’s network, seeking high-speed Web access to spur demand for their products and services.

The LTE technology is about two to three years behind, so Clearwire still has an advantage, said Sean Maloney, head of sales at Intel, the world’s biggest computer-chip maker.

While the freeze in global capital markets has made it difficult for companies to raise money for expansion, Clearwire has enough to keep going “for a while” without new investment, Maloney said on a conference call Wednesday. He was responding to a question on whether Intel will provide more funding.

Clearwire will update investors on its expansion plans in the coming weeks, spokeswoman Susan Johnston said.

Clearwire has touted WiMax as a way to provide wireless Internet service five times faster than the network used by Apple’s iPhone 3G. The company now offers service in Baltimore and Portland, using the Clear brand, and plans to eventually sell under the brands of its investors.

Verizon Wireless aims to roll out its technology in the first half of 2010.

While Intel and Comcast have “staying power” as partners, the next 12 months will be critical for Clearwire to prove its viability and get ahead of competing technology, said Portland-based Pat Becker Jr., who manages $1.6 billion, including Intel shares, at Becker Capital Management.

“If their partners walk away from them, then their viability comes into question,” he said. “This is basically a venture-capital type of investment. As long as they’re important to Comcast and Intel in their overall strategy, I think they have a shot at getting through this.”