GigaOM Interview With Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff

benwolff_clearwire1Today Clearwire said it had completed the transactions that will allow it to build the first nationwide WiMAX network, to be known as Clear. CEO Ben Wolff took a few minutes to answer some questions about what the upcoming service will look like, how Clearwire (s CLWR) might handle network congestion and how the recession might affect the speed with which Clearwire builds its network. Below is an edited transcript of our interview:

GigaOM: How much will it cost to build the nationwide network and will the economy slow the buildout?

Ben Wolff: Coupled with what we’ve spent, the $3.2 billion from our investors, and based on the same build schedule we released in May, we need to raise $2 billion to $2.3 billion in additional capital and will look at doing so in the next couple of years. We’ve got the ability to modulate the build plan to the point where we could reduce that funding gap by slowing down the build. That’s one of the first things the new board is going to address in the January meeting — make decisions about how quickly we build.

GigaOM: How will the white spaces broadband spectrum compete with WiMAX?

Wolff: We don’t see the whites spaces spectrum as being competitive with our network, much as we didn’t view the Muni wireless networks as competitive. We see it very much as being complementary with the Clear service. The white spaces spectrum will be unlicensed, and any time you have unlicensed spectrum as the primary means of connecting to the Internet you have the potential for interference and quality-of-service issues. We like the idea of relying on white spaces in some of the more rural areas and dense urban areas.

GigaOM: Will Clearwire or its partners use femotocells to build out the wireless networks?

Wolff: I think that femtocells are promising for any kind of wireless network. Having a femtocell indoors will provide better in-building coverage, and an opportunity for our [cable] partners to look at ways to utilize the backhaul they have going into the house. I think all¬†wireless networks going forward could use them, but there are still questions about the business model — who pays for it and getting the cost of femtos down to a point where they can be cost-effective for a home.

GigaOM: Will WiMAX be as fast as LTE and can it act as a fat enough pipe to deliver Internet service to the home?

Wolff: I don’t think there is going to be much in the way of performance differences in LTE and WiMAX. The limiting factor is unlikely to be the technology; it’s likely to be how much spectrum the operator has available for 4G services. We have 100 MHz of spectrum and are in great shape to ultimately deliver a robust broadband experience.

GigaOM: What kind of services can Clear deliver using WiMAX?

Wolff: The suite of services people will eventually be able to buy are residential broadband, mobile broadband for each individual in the house, residential voice, and ultimately, mobile voice.

GigaOM: Since this is all IP network, will you charge for this as individual services or will this be one service that consumers can buy and add things like VoIP to?

Wolff: There¬†will be some customers that will use a bring-your-own-VoIP service and we’ll offer our own managed mobile voice services that will offer higher quality of service.

GigaOM: What about network management such as blocking some traffic or slowing it down when the network is congested?

Wolff: We will have to experiment with how were dealing with network management issues. We won’t ID specific bandwidth-hogging apps and try to restrict or limit those. What we’re going to do is manage the network on a sector-by-sector basis, so if there’s no congestion we do nothing. If it turns out we do have congestion, we’ll manage bandwidth for all users in that segment rather than by applications.

GigaOM: Can a WiMAX network really provide the amount of bandwidth necessary to offer services such as streaming video that can really clog wireless networks today?

Wolff: One of the benefits over 3G is we have much more capacity, and we designed it to have a large number of customers using a large amount of data — including consistent streaming capacity.