Sprint to offer network of Wi-Fi hot spots

Sprint PCS Group will build Wi-Fi wireless LAN hot spots and create roaming agreements with other service providers to provide high-speed local wireless data access in more than 2,100 U.S. locations by the end of this year, the mobile operator announced Monday.

Prices were not yet available for the service, which will be launched by the end of this quarter, and charges for the Wi-Fi service can't be integrated into Sprint customers' cellular service bills until late this year. However, the combination of Sprint's own hot spots and those available through roaming deals will create one of the largest networks of hot spots in the country.

Public Wi-Fi hot spots, typically using 11M bps (bit-per-second) wireless LANs based on the IEEE 802.11b specification, are proliferating as service providers look to offer a high-speed data option to their traveling customers, according to industry analysts. Users like the high speed but are frustrated with having to set up many different accounts in order to get it in multiple places, they have said.

Sprint's service, called PCS Wi-Fi Access, will kick off with more than 800 hot spots in locations such as airports, convention centers and hotels. Those networks will provide connections to the Internet similar to DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable modem service, with speeds up to 50 times dialup, according to Jason Guesman, director of business marketing at Sprint PCS, the mobile unit of Sprint Corp., in Overland Park, Kansas. The carrier's goal is eventually to offer service on 90 percent of all U.S. hot spots through roaming agreements and its own buildout, in order to serve a customer demand that Sprint believes is in its infancy, Guesman said.

"What they're looking for is what we introduced in cellular ... a single nationwide network with consistent pricing and consistent service," Guesman said. Sprint also is looking at expanding the service outside the U.S., he added. One of its roaming partners, AirPath Wireless Inc., works with service providers in 15 countries, according to Sprint. Also participating as a roaming partner is Wayport Inc.

Sprint currently offers a cellular data service, Sprint PCS Vision, which can deliver speeds from 50K bps (bits per second) to 70K bps, around dialup speed, according to the company. Initially, if customers of that service want to use a Sprint-affiliated Wi-Fi hot spot for faster access in a particular location, they will have to log off of PCS Vision and on to the Wi-Fi Service, Guesman said. While PCS Vision charges will appear on the customer's cellular bill, Wi-Fi service will require setting up a separate account using a credit card number.

However, for customers that use Sprint's PCS Connection Card hardware for cellular data, Sprint will provide a single piece of software for managing connections to both services. Called PCS Connection Manager with Wi-Fi, it will show current availability of both kinds of services and a button to sign on to each.

Providing automatic handoffs between Sprint's cellular data network and the Wi-Fi hot spots will be a key step in making the Wi-Fi service more attractive to traveling professionals, said Roberta Wiggins, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

"They don't want to have to think about, should I use this technology or that technology?" she said.

Sprint's service is aimed squarely at business users, in contrast to T-Mobile USA Inc.'s hot spot service, which includes networks in coffee shops and bookstores and seems designed for consumers as well as mobile professionals, Wiggins said.

Any user with Wi-Fi hardware will be able to sign up for the Wi-Fi service alone by using a credit card. Software for managing Wi-Fi connections alone will be available free from Sprint's Web site, from a Sprint store or through select Sprint business channels.

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