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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Clearwire 2.0 boss on his big plans for Seattle, privacy and more

The blockbuster merger of Sprint’s WiMax business into Clearwire, announced Wednesday, was negotiated in cities across the country.

But they may as well have done the deal in a Kirkland wine bar — it was like a reunion of local wireless executives, coming back to McCawville.

Long before Dan Hesse started running Sprint, he was running Redmond-based AT&T Wireless, the former McCaw Cellular Communications.

When Hesse and Clearwire Chairman Craig McCaw decided to pursue WiMax together, McCaw called in his former general, John Stanton, to help his current lieutenant, Clearwire Chief Executive Ben Wolff, lead the merged company.

So it’s no wonder the biggest beneficiary of the deal could end up being the Puget Sound region.

If Clearwire grows according to the plans these guys hashed out, the company will be huge, on the scale of the other major wireless companies the area has spawned.

Wolff told me that ultimately the company could “get to 20,000 or 30,000 employees” nationally.

“This is a testament to the ongoing connection that Seattle has to the wireless industry and certainly with us growing Clearwire in Seattle, that presence will increase fairly dramatically,’’ he said.

Headquarters will remain here, although it’s likely to soon outgrow the Carillon Point offices where McCaw has launched a series of wireless companies.

Clearwire has about 2,000 employees now, including 350 to 400 at its Kirkland headquarters. Sprint has about 700 in its WiMax unit, including a research and development group in Herndon, Va.

Research will continue to grow in Herndon, but the exact distribution of employees hasn’t been determine, Wolff said.

“What’s really exciting for me is we’ve got what’s going to be a large company that’s going to be a major player changing the communications landscape again in the Seattle area,” he said.

Clearwire partners Intel and Google could also co-locate some engineers at the company to develop their WiMax products, although they already have engineers in the area.

Wolff also clarified Stanton’s stake in the new venture. After he agreed to serve on the board at the request of Wolff and McCaw, Stanton chose to invest $10 million.

Although Google gives Clearwire some Silicon Valley pixie dust, plus cash, I wonder if consumers will be concerned about subscribing to a broadband service embedded with Google technology for targeting ads based on their online activity.

Wolff said privacy is a top issue for Clearwire and consumers will have the choice of opting in or out of services.

“I think the privacy issues and how consumers view that is going to be our paramount concern, so you won’t find us doing anything that causes customers to be concerned about how their private information is being handled,” he said.

On the service, you’ll find “consumers opting in to different offers and applications but that will be their choice rather than ours,” he said.

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