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Sprint PCS roaming into Wi-Fi

More carriers are catching Wi-Fi fever. Sprint PCS is stitching together a network of wireless "hot spots" to cash in on the growing popularity of wireless networking.

Sprint PCS has begun stitching together a network of wireless "hot spots" to cash in on the growing popularity of wireless networking, a Sprint PCS executive said.

The company has already signed agreements to let subscribers roam onto a number of different so-called hot spots--public areas outfitted with wireless networks--then be charged for wireless Web access on their Sprint PCS bill, according to Wesley Dittmer, the senior director for wireless LANs (local area networks) at Sprint PCS.

Dittmer wasn't specific about when the service would launch or how much access will cost. He told executives gathered last week at the Wireless Airport Association meeting in Washington, D.C., that they would see Sprint get into the Wi-Fi market "soon."

A Sprint PCS spokesman reached Thursday did not provide any additional details on the expected service.

Sprint PCS is the third major U.S. carrier to either launch or begin adding a subscription Wi-Fi service to its consumer offerings.

Wireless carriers are adding Wi-Fi services to supplement existing Web networks built using cellular technology. These networks transmit information at 40kbps to 60kbps--fine for Web surfing or e-mailing--but carriers need Wi-Fi's 11mbps download capabilities to "do all the heavy lifting" like downloading large files, said Alan Reiter, an analyst with consulting company Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing.

"This is one more indication that the cellular operators don't see their cellular networks as the be-all and end-all of wireless data," he said.

Sprint PCS was earlier expected to enter into the Wi-Fi business after investing in a hot spot network Boingo Wireless. But the nation's fourth-largest carrier stayed on the sidelines while T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless grabbed the lead.

T-Mobile's network of 2,000 hot spots is the largest in the country. AT&T Wireless sells wireless access inside a Denver airport and intends to launch services in about 10 others in the next few months.

Representatives from the two companies did not immediately return calls for comment.

Nextel Communications is another carrier dabbling in Wi-Fi. The company sells Wi-Fi gear to businesses.

Pushing for universal standards
Sprint is also trying to solve some of the more critical problems with Wi-Fi, such as roaming between different networks.

Dittmer said Sprint is working with industry group Wi-Fi Alliance to create a standard way to log in to any hot spot. With a universal standard, a Sprint PCS, T-Mobile or AT&T Wireless subscriber could walk into any hot spot and log on, regardless of who their carrier is, he said.

Currently, hot spots are affiliated with just one carrier, and there is no roaming between networks.

Dittmer outlined several steps to make that happen, including creating a standard "splash page," or Web page people see every time they log on to a Wi-Fi network. Subscribers enter their passwords and usernames on splash pages before joining the network. Nearly every carrier or wireless Internet provider has a slightly different version of a splash page.

In a move that Reiter calls "altruistic," Sprint PCS and the alliance are developing splash pages that list all of the hot spots in a given area, giving consumers the alternative to log on to those networks if they want. Usually, splash pages are for only one hot spot service.