Can Clearwire Bank On A Relationship With T-Mobile USA?

Clearwire (NSDQ: CLWR) is sounding fairly confident that an investment or network-sharing agreement with T-Mobile USA is in the works, but there’s evidence that the deal isn’t necessarily in the bag.

The two companies have confirmed they are in talks, and today, Clearwire’s CEO Bill Morrow said at an investor conference that it would prefer to do a deal where a carrier, like T-Mobile USA, invests and rents network space, Reuters reports. But if an investment doesn’t materialize, he said: “they [T-Mobile] could be a wholesale customer.”

Despite this perceived sense of confidence, T-Mobile USA still has other options to consider. It could wait until the next government auction to buy spectrum for its 4G network. It could also invest in another hungry upstart, called LightSquared, which is backed by Harbinger hedge fund manager Phillip Falcone. Those options are flawed, too, because they would both take lots of time and money.

Clearwire may have to make some concessions to sweeten the deal for T-Mobile USA. In an interview with T-Mobile’s Chief Network Officer Neville Ray, he was quick to say what he liked and disliked about the company, which is headquartered just miles away from his offices in Bellevue, Wash. The biggest sticking point is that Clearwire is using the unpopular WiMax technology, and T-Mobile and most other carriers have committed to using LTE for its next generation network. Ray said “WiMax will never compare to the scale CDMA has achieved,” and as a biased GSM operator, he jabs that CDMA was a flop, too.

The other downside is Clearwire’s spectrum position, which is vast, but doesn’t penetrate walls easily. That will require building out a dense network, which will be costly and time-consuming. Still, Ray acknowledges that Clearwire’s holdings are extensive, and that it has already made a lot of progress in its network build-out so far.

Clearwire may already be prepping to counteract these claims by T-Mobile or other carriers. The operator announced recently that it has already started testing LTE, and claims it has enough spectrum to build another LTE network along side the existing WiMax network.