An amendment to Sprint Nextel's subscriber terms of service points toward the carrier's expected shutdown of its 4G WiMax service.
On May 22, Sprint added a paragraph to its terms of service for new subscribers that lays out what the company will do if it turns off WiMax while they're still under contract. One option listed is a free LTE device.
The new language appears to be the first reference in Sprint's terms of service to discontinuing WiMax. The carrier is expected eventually to shut down the WiMax service, which it introduced in 2008, though it has never said how long WiMax would be available. Sprint is now building out a network using LTE, the technology that has since been adopted by most 4G mobile operators.
Sprint isn't introducing new WiMax devices under any of its brands, but it is still selling out inventory of new units, and it offers some pre-owned units under contract. For example, the HTC Evo Shift 4G Pre-owned costs $119, but customers can get it free if they sign up for a two-year contract.
Under a 2011 agreement between Sprint and partner company Clearwire, which runs the WiMax network, Sprint has the right to use the network through at least 2015. The new contract terms prepare Sprint in case new subscribers still have WiMax phones under contract when that service is discontinued.
The terms say Sprint reserves the right to migrate a subscriber's contract service from WiMax to LTE. If the company does so, it will give "reasonable advance notice" and offer three options: keep using the WiMax device with no WiMax service, deactivate the service with no early termination fee, or transition from WiMax to LTE.
"If you select the Transition Option, you will receive a free standard Sprint LTE capable device and can maintain your existing service plan, if available," the document says.
Sprint's no-contract Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile brands have also stopped introducing new WiMax devices. Those brands will follow Sprint's lead in dealing with customers when they transition away from WiMax, the company said.
Both Sprint and Clearwire are moving toward LTE, with Clearwire building its own LTE network that the companies say will complement Sprint's system in crowded areas. But on top of their waning interest in WiMax, the two partners may be moving away from each other. On Wednesday, Clearwire's board of directors recommended its shareholders accept satellite operator Dish Network's bid for the company's stock.
(Martyn Williams in San Francisco contributed to this story.)