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Sprint readies ION for consumer market

The telco will announce next week that it is beginning to offer its one-stop-shopping package of voice and broadband Internet services to the consumer market.

Sprint will announce next week that it is beginning to offer its one-stop-shopping package of voice and broadband Internet services to the consumer market, according to a company executive.

The No. 3 long distance company introduced ION, or the Integrated On-Demand Network for voice and data, almost a year ago. But so far Sprint has largely aimed its sales and marketing pitches at the corporate market.

On Monday, the company will challenge AT&T's promises to offer voice, Internet, and data over cable TV lines with the unveiling of the first stage of its own bundled consumer service. The initiative will make use of both high-speed DSL telephone lines and the "wireless cable" technology in which Sprint has invested more than $1 billion over the last several months.

Nevertheless, the company does intend to keep its ION division focused on the large business market at least through the third quarter of this year, said Kevin Brauer, president of Sprint's National Integrated Services division.

"We're building infrastructure throughout the company that will allow us to scale and go after the mass market," Brauer said. "But we don't have that infrastructure in place yet."

The new strategy--to be rolled out initially in three cities--will mark the first time Sprint is integrating its new broadband networks with its consumer voice business.

The premise behind ION is similar to what AT&T is touting as the future of its cable system. ION customers will ultimately be able to get high-speed Internet connections, local and long distance phone service, and features like extra phone lines through their PCs.

The service has been marketed to large businesses as a way of folding corporate-level data connections and telephone service into a single, easily managed network. About ten large businesses have signed up since Sprint began its marketing push earlier this year--a campaign that has been slowed by reluctance among big businesses to switch telecommunications services for fear of year 2000 complications, Brauer said.

Sprint has talked about deploying ION in the home market since it established the service, though its vision of how the business would be structured has evolved substantially.

The company already is deploying DSL in areas where it is the dominant local phone company.

But since the beginning of March, Sprint has bought four "wireless cable" companies that use a wireless technology the company says will be able to provide services similar to those carried over a traditional cable infrastructure, like AT&T's.

Since many wireless cable firms have struggled financially of late, with some close to bankruptcy, existing wireless networks are not as technologically advanced as they could be, Brauer noted. But Sprint said it plans to work with networking technology companies such as Cisco or Nortel to upgrade these systems, he said.

Once the wireless cable systems are up to speed, they will give Sprint a broadband base of more than 26 million homes, Brauer said. By the end of 2001, the company plans to be able to reach 50 million homes or small businesses through DSL or wireless cable connections, he added.

Despite its high-profile dime-a-minute long distance ads, Sprint has traditionally has been more successful in the market for mid-sized and large businesses than in the consumer market, analysts note.

But with the popularity of its Sprint PCS wireless phone campaign, the company is making new strides in the consumer market, said Forrester Research's Bruce Kasrel.

Nevertheless, the ION program is likely to appeal more to small businesses and home offices than to even the most wired consumers, said Jupiter Communications' Abhi Chaki.

"I see this as an important baby step," Chaki said. "But by the nature of the service, the people who end up taking it will be the small businesses and home offices."