SAN FRANCISCO -- Sprint Nextel ( S) investors may be happy to forget Gary Forsee, the embattled CEO
who stepped down this week . But he may be more missed at chipmaker Intel ( INTC). Intel and Sprint share a similar vision of the future: The high-speed wireless network called WiMax. With Forsee now out of the picture, the era of WiMax, and Intel's plans to capitalize on it, have hit a speed bump. According to some analysts, Sprint's plans to spend $5 billion to build a nationwide WiMax network in the next several years are now in question. As valuable subscribers defect from Sprint and the company struggles to merge its operations with Nextel, the WiMax project hatched by Forsee looks like an expensive distraction. Sprint may well opt to pare the investment -- or possibly even pull the plug on the project entirely, reckons Pacific Crest Securities analyst Steve Clement. That wouldn't be welcome news at Intel, which has tied a good deal of its product development to WiMax. Just last month at its developer conference, Intel executives outlined plans to integrate WiMax chips into a variety of devices , from laptop PCs to handheld gadgets. Intel will introduce a chipset for notebook PCs that includes WiMax functionality in May, which dovetails nicely with Sprint's previously announced plans to have WiMax service available in some 20 U.S. cities by the end of next year. A Sprint spokesman said the company is continuing with its previously announced WiMax plans at this point. Intel spokesman Tom Beerman said the company was moving forward with its own WiMax plans and could not comment on speculation about what may happen to Sprint's WiMax project.
In WiMax, Intel sees an opportunity to replicate the success it has enjoyed with Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology that allows laptop-toting consumers to browse the Web at coffee shops, airports and other so-called hot spots. In the four years since Intel integrated a Wi-Fi chip into its Centrino notebook technology, the popularity of WiFi -- and Intel's sales of mobile chips -- have soared. "They're benefiting from Wi-Fi in ways beyond their imagination," says American Technology Research analyst Doug Freedman. And with WiMax, which features higher data speeds and longer connectivity ranges, Intel hopes to take the Wi-Fi model and make it bigger, he says. Freedman, who rates Intel a buy, says WiMax is peripheral to the main investing thesis for Intel. The chipmaker's stock is up roughly 26% in the past 12 months as the company's new line-up of microprocessors have allowed it to push back market-share gains made by rival Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD). Shares of Intel closed Wednesday up 4 cents to $25.88. Any success at all that Intel experiences with WiMax is upside, says Freedman. And, he adds, whatever ultimately happens with Sprint's WiMax network, it won't make or break Intel's WiMax plans. But it's clear that Intel has a very keen interest in seeing Sprint's WiMax network become a reality as soon as possible.
Intel was actively involved behind the scenes in brokering the July deal between Sprint and Clearwire ( CLWR), in which the two companies
agreed to share their radio spectrum in order to create a larger WiMax coverage area in the U.S. And while there are numerous WiMax trials currently underway around the world, the North American market appears to play an important role in Intel's near-term WiMax ambitions. In his keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum last month, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said that the 150 million people projected to be covered by WiMax in 2008 will principally be in North America. If Sprint were to pull the plug on the project, it would be a disaster for WiMax, says Craig Mathias, a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm that specializes in wireless technology. But Mathias doesn't believe Sprint would do something that drastic. "There's value there, and they're planning on going live in two cities by the end of the year," he says. A more likely scenario, says Mathias, would be for Sprint to spin off the WiMax unit into a separate entity. And that's where things could get interesting. Intel's venture capital arm has demonstrated a strong commitment to funding companies involved in building the WiMax infrastructure. Last year, Intel Capital invested $600 million to take a 20% stake in WiMax service provider Clearwire -- the largest investment in the history of Intel Capital. The chipmaker has also made direct investments in a handful of other WiMax carriers around the world in recent years including Japan's KDDI and Australia's Unwired Australia.
Whether Intel would feel compelled to jump into the fray and open its wallet in order to keep an orphaned Sprint WiMax project moving forward is impossible to say. It's highly unlikely that Intel would foot the enormous bill necessary to build out the network. But Intel's track record suggests the company could play a more active role in Sprint's WiMax network should it become an independent entity. In fact, Intel may even see a benefit. Intel's 2006 deal with Clearwire features a revenue-sharing agreement that gives Intel a slice of the recurring subscriber fees, as well as a one-time payment for each new customer that signs up for the service using an Intel-based device. That arrangement allows Intel to profit from both sides of the WiMax phenomenon -- the initial chip sales and the subsequent service fees. Intel also would presumably have a better chance of striking another such deal with a cash-hungry independent carrier than with a behemoth like Sprint. Intel clearly wants WiMax to become the new global network -- it may soon have a chance to prove how much.