* Says involvement level depends on strategic decisions
* Says Clearwire/Sprint should share Sprint's network
* Says could offer dual LTE/WiMax handsets
* Sprint shares off 0.9 pct, Clearwire shares up 3 pct
NEW YORK, March 9 Sprint Nextel (S.N) plans to
continue its relationship with its Clearwire Corp CLWR.O
venture into the future, but the depth of that relationship
will depend on other strategy decisions Sprint makes, according
to Sprint's chief executive, Dan Hesse.
Sprint, which has a 54 percent stake in Clearwire and uses
its WiMax network for its own-brand high-speed services, is
planning a network upgrade and looking at options such as
network sharing with other operators.
As a result, investors have been concerned about what
happens to Clearwire if Sprint decides to introduce LTE -- a
rival technology to WiMax -- in its own network, or if Sprint
does a network sharing deal with Harbinger-backed LightSquared,
which is setting itself up as a rival to Clearwire.
During a webcast of an investment conference, Hesse did not
directly address recent reports that Sprint is in merger talks
with smaller rival T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom.
He insisted that whatever Sprint decides, it will still use
WiMax and have a relationship with Clearwire going forward but
said it remains unclear whether the involvement with Clearwire
would be on "a sliding scale."
"In every option we're looking at, every one includes WiMax
and Clearwire," Hesse said, but he added it was still undecided
"how heavily we're with Clearwire versus the other
Clearwire shares were up 3.1 percent at $5.35 after the
comments. Sprint shares were down 0.9 percent at $4.66.
Hesse also said Sprint could come to a network-sharing
agreement with Clearwire, which could avail of Sprint's network
if it is going to expand its current service beyond a third of
the U.S. population, known as POPs in industry parlance.
"It would make a lot of sense if Clearwire were to build
out additional POPs for them to look at doing it with Sprint,"
Sprint has promised to make an announcement about its
strategy for the next generation of high-speed wireless
services by mid-year as it plans to start investing in a
network upgrade in the second half of 2011.
It is widely expected to announce a move to LTE technology
for its own network. Hesse said such a decision could lead to
the introduction of phones that support both LTE and WiMax.
The network upgrade is expected to give Sprint flexibility
to support different technologies on the same network and to
host other operators services in a form of network sharing.
Hesse said he hopes to have made decisions about who will
share the network before the upgrade starts.
"We're going to get a better return on that investment the
more we've thought through," Hesse said.
Before Sprint and Clearwire could come to any kind of
network sharing agreement Hesse suggested that they would have
to end a dispute they are currently having about how much
Clearwire charges Sprint for access to its WiMax network.
"I would be very surprised if that wasn't resolved pretty
soon. Then we'll cross other bridges when that comes," Hesse
(Reporting by Sinead Carew, editing by Matthew Lewis)