Clearwire Sics Rover Prepaid Broadband on Competitors

Clearwire (s clwr) today added unlimited pay-as-you-go plans under the Rover brand to its national WiMAX service, which currently covers a population of 56 million in 49 markets. The move was expected, but the pricing and plans are a big deal that could drive the adoption of mobile broadband beyond the corporate and geeky set. Plans are priced at $5 per day, $20 a week or $50 for a month of unlimited 4G mobile broadband without a contract.

The new Rover plans are due in part to increased competition as rival 4G networks are expected to launch before year end, and also to give potential customers a low-risk opportunity to try out the Clear network. By offering a prepaid solution, the mobile broadband provider may be able to overcome a slow start for consumer adoption and offset the several billion dollars it cost to build out the network. Earlier this month, Clearwire announced it has 1.7 million subscribers and expects 3 million by the end of this year.

On a conference call this morning, Seth Cummings, the general manager of Rover, introduced the new brand, targeted at the 18- to 24-year-old demographic in urban areas. The flagship hardware product is a $149 Rover Puck: essentially a Mi-Fi-like device that shares a 4G connection with up to eight devices over Wi-Fi. Clearwire is also offering the $99 Rover Stick, a USB WiMAX dongle for customers to use with a single device, such as a netbook or notebook. Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert said users can expect download speeds of 3 – 6 Mbps using either device. Both devices can be reloaded online or through a Rover Re-Up card available in $20 and $50 denominations, and are usable in any Clearwire market with service.

The new Rover service will be sold through various partner channels, such as cable companies and retailers like Best Buy (s bby). Sievert used this morning’s call to highlight these relationships and touted the network’s speed. My own testing of Clearwire’s 4G service has shown high speeds and low network latency, but network coverage issues have kept me on a 3G plan so I don’t have to worry about having consistent mobile broadband service. This could be a big issue for those interested in Rover, as the new products don’t fall back to 3G network in areas with weak or no 4G signals. Cummings said that the company is looking at future Rover products that could be dual-mode, but Sievert says the majority of Clearwire devices are single-mode, 4G-only. My gut says that Rover is geared towards the “urban mobile lifestyle” because Clearwire’s coverage is often better in cities than in rural areas.

The new Rover brand and plans illustrate that Clearwire’s “early to market” advantage is disappearing, even though Sievert said today, “it doesn’t matter what our competitors are doing.” MetroPCS is reportedly preparing its LTE network to go live within the next few weeks, while Verizon Wireless (s vz) is targeting 25 – 30 markets for its own LTE service before year end: a 5 – 12 Mbps network that should be completely rolled out by 2014. Factor in AT&T’s (s t) HSPA+ upgrade to 7.2 Mbps currently in progress, and T-Mobile’s completion of a 21 Mbps network by the end of this year, and it’s easy to see why Clearwire needs to add new plans and target new mobile broadband audiences.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

4G: State of the Union