The company, which has offered Net backbone services to businesses since 1992, will roll out its Sprint Internet Passport service in phases, beginning today. The company will invite 200,000 of its residential long distance customers to test-drive the service at no charge until this fall, when the service will be made available to the public.
Company officials predict Sprint will command 20 percent of the consumer ISP market within a year, although analysts are skeptical that any service provider will emerge as a clear leader in what's become an increasingly saturated market.
The company also signed a deal with Netscape Communications to bundle the Netscape Navigator Web browser with its Internet Passport service. In return, Netscape will offer Sprint as an ISP option to buyers of the retail version of Navigator.
Last month, CNET reported that Sprint was planning to enter the market by year's end and was negotiating a pact with Netscape.
Microsoft expects Sprint's new Internet access service to offer the software company's Internet Explorer as an option too, a Microsoft official said Tuesday.
Mike Hebert, a Microsoft group product manager, said he hoped an agreement between the two companies could be announced soon. He declined to discuss details.
"We're absolutely talking to Sprint," Hebert said. "We fully expect Sprint will be offering Internet Explorer with their Internet access service."
Customers can also opt for a pay-as-you-go plan. Unlike competitors, Sprint will charge only $1.50 per hour, compared with an average of $2.50 per hour charged by competitors.