Cricket leaps to Clearwire for LTE offload

LightSquared suffered another blow to its hoped-for wholesale 4G mobile business on Wednesday as budget carrier Cricket announced it will use Clearwire to flesh out a planned LTE service.

Cricket was LightSquared's first well-known carrier partner when it signed up with the carrier last March, and it becomes the second would-be customer to turn to Clearwire since the U.S. Federal Communications Commission LightSquared's hybrid network plan last month. Concerns over interference with GPS shot down the proposal.

Cricket, the operating company of Leap Wireless, plans to deploy its own LTE network across about two-thirds of its coverage footprint over the next two or three years, starting with LTE coverage for about 25 million U.S. residents by the end of this year, it said in a press release. But under the five-year agreement announced on Wednesday, it will use Clearwire's LTE network for capacity offload from its own network.

Cricket has not cancelled its canceled its partnership with LightSquared, Cricket spokeswoman Amy Wakeham said. That deal has not cost Cricket anything yet, and Cricket has always envisioned having multiple LTE offload partners, she said. However, with Clearwire set to deploy LTE and offer it wholesale, carriers have gained another wholesale option even as the future looks increasingly bleak for LightSquared.

LightSquared hopes to launch a high-speed mobile data service over a terrestrial LTE network, which would complement a slower but more widely available satellite offering. Its plan is to sell other carriers capacity on either or both networks. The company has announced more than 30 wholesale customers, but some are now turning to Clearwire, which now also plans to build an LTE network and sell capacity on it.

In moving to Clearwire, Cricket joins FreedomPop, a startup that plans to offer free mobile broadband to some subscribers, which likewise had signed up as a LightSquared wholesale partner but announced a deal with Clearwire last month. Worse news could come as early as Thursday: Sprint Nextel, LightSquared's main wholesale partner, to win FCC approval for its network. Under the companies' 15-year deal, LightSquared would pay Sprint US$9 billion in cash and Sprint would host the startup's spectrum on its Network Vision infrastructure.