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Sprint PCS, late to the table, has announced that it will have over 800 Wi-Fi Zones ready for its mobile phone customers in two months - and 2,100 Zones by the end of 2003. In fact, the first 800 are a simple franchise deal.

"The service will complement PCS Vision services offered on the enhanced Sprint Nationwide PCS Network," says the company, claiming to be currently the largest "next generation wireless network" - that is, GSM/GPRS based - in the United States. Sprint's PCS network covers more than 240 million sites, "with data speeds averaging 50 to 70Kbps."

The new service will be rolled out with the help of established public access Wi-Fi services from Wayport and Airpath. Exactly what Sprint intends to do to get another 1,300 sites in five months, isn't clear; nor is it publishing prices yet. But Sprint's sincerity in promising them isn't in doubt, because what it chiefly needs is poker counters - sites of its own, which it can trade with other wireless site providers like T-Mobile, in roaming agreements.

The project follows the path beaten by other US phone companies into Wi-Fi hotspots, and starts with the normal, predictable high revenue-charging sites such as airports, convention centres and hotels - sites which Wayport and Airpath already control, but which will now accept Sprint subscribers.

What Sprint brings to the party, over and above access rights, is its own, proprietary version of a hot-spot finder: PCS Connection Manager. This now comes in a new version, apparently, with Wi-Fi services covered.

"The software is designed to enable customers to travel between disparate Wi-Fi locations all over the country, detect Wi-Fi Zones compatible with Sprint, and easily connect. The software will also allow customers to access a directory, kept current via over-the-air updates, with a complete list of Wi-Fi Zones compatible with the Sprint service," said the announcement.

The software will be available in Sprint Stores, through select business channels and online - once the service launches.

Customers using the PCS Connection Card by AirPrime PC3200 (for connectivity via the enhanced Sprint Nationwide PCS Network) will be able to take advantage of the enhanced version of PCS Connection Manager - a version which manages both PCS Vision and WLAN connectivity.

Up till now, Sprint's main WLAN focus has been "assisting enterprise customers with deploying Wi-Fi solutions in office buildings, corporate campuses and branch offices," says the release.

This also includes businesses that want to make Wi-Fi available for employees, as well as their customers and vendors. Sprint has been successful in two strategic vertical markets – hospitality and education – and has worked with its strategic partner, Cisco Systems, to enable the rapid and smooth deployment of wireless solutions to major hotels such as the Wyndham Hotel chain, and on college campuses including Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University, one of America's leading independent research universities.

Wayport has nearly 500 Wi-Fi locations - including many leading hotels such as Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Loews, Sheraton, Hilton and Marriott, as well as eight major airports including Buffalo Niagara, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle-Tacoma, LaGuardia, San Jose, Austin-Bergstrom, Oakland and Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's a good deal for Wayport, because Sprint will entice customers into its web: "As part of the PCS Wi-Fi service, Sprint customers will be able to easily find and connect to Wayport-enabled locations to ensure they stay more productive on the road with high-speed connectivity," gloated Dave Vucina, CEO of Wayport, Inc. At Airpath, Todd B Myers, chairman and CEO made similar noises.

Initially, customers will be able to subscribe to PCS Wi-Fi Access using their credit cards. In late 2003, Sprint expects to integrate usage charges into the customers' monthly PCS Service Plan statement.

Full details on Sprint's web site.

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