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Sprint's wireless Net struggles to keep pace

A growing, angry group of Sprint customers complain the company's high-speed wireless Internet connections aren't working as promised, and Sprint hasn't followed through to fix problems.

Last weekend, San Jose, Calif., resident Joe Curcio began tracking how often his Sprint wireless Internet connection actually worked. The results were distressing: The service was sporadically down for a total of 8 hours each day.

Curcio is one of a growing, increasingly vocal group of Sprint customers around the country complaining that the company's high-speed wireless Internet connections aren't working as promised and that Sprint hasn't followed through on repeated promises to fix problems.

The technology in question, known as "fixed wireless," provides high-speed Internet service, and potentially phone or video service, using transmissions similar to those used by mobile phones. Customers connect pizza-sized dish receivers to the side of their homes and can then receive connections that can be dozens of times faster than a dial-up modem.

Criticism of Sprint's wireless broadband service comes at an unfortunate time. For several reasons, consumers have started to look for broadband alternatives to cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) systems, giving Sprint and other fixed wireless providers a window of opportunity to gain ground.

The angry customers have forced Sprint into a kind of squeeze play between the need to satisfy unexpected levels of demand and the danger of pouring large sums of money into technology that will be replaced next year. Analysts say the company has been pressed by a quickly moving market and unrelated regulatory issues to push a first generation of technology to--and occasionally past--its limits.

That's sending waves of frustration through customers who are living with the downside of Sprint's success in signing up new customers. Curcio said his service was down a third of the time last weekend, and even the connections that did come were intermittent spurts, making it "difficult to capture how useless the service is," he said.

"I will be paying for a service at $49.95 a month that is not only no better, but actually worse than a dial-up (connection) at $19.95 a month," Curcio said in an e-mail interview. "I and others simply want Sprint to make an ethical business decision and invest in the infrastructure that will support the performance advertised."

Customers have been turning to fixed wireless and other broadband alternatives in part because DSL has been marred by complaints that it often takes weeks, or longer, to be installed. In addition, DSL service is still not available in many areas of the country. Meanwhile, rates for cable and DSL access have recently risen from about $40 to nearly $50 in most areas, prompting some consumers to consider alternatives.

Fast service, slow to deliver
Like many others over the past few months, Curcio signed for Sprint's high-speed wireless service with considerable anticipation. He's in an area where neither DSL nor cable modem service is offered, so the chance to go beyond the poky speeds of a dial-up modem brought him quickly onboard.

Fixed wireless technology has held the promise of reaching areas with no broadband service quickly and relatively cheaply, because no new cables have to be laid underground to serve a neighborhood. Although the technology is not expected to catch up to cable or DSL anytime soon, the highly publicized demise of independent high-speed Net services like NorthPoint Communications has driven business to alternatives such as Sprint's fixed wireless in high volumes over the past few months.

see related story: Headaches for Sprint's wireless service Sprint doesn't break out its current subscriber figures. At the close of 2000, the Westwood, Kan.-based company said it had about 17,000 high-speed Net customers, and that figure came close to doubling by the end of March.

As reported earlier, San Jose is one of several areas in the country where demand on Sprint's fixed wireless network has exceeded the existing infrastructure's ability to keep up. As is the case with cable modems, the total bandwidth in a given neighborhood is shared among all subscribers online at a given moment. When too many people are online, the network slows, and eventually customers begin reporting unusable connections.

Sprint has been promising upgrades for months, customers say, but it hasn't delivered. Online bulletin boards have hummed with complaints from these regions for several months. Even technical support representatives have privately told a few of the angry subscribers that they're increasingly skeptical of the upgrade promises.

In San Jose, customer service representatives are promising an upgrade by June 8, and Curcio says Sprint has stopped charging him until that point, at least.

The company says it finally has a few fixes that will lower pressure on the network in the next few weeks. Unexpected delays with the landlords on wireless transmission towers pushed San Jose's fixes back a few months, but new equipment is now being installed, Sprint representatives say.

The company continues to sign people up as quickly as it can, but it's also won the approval of federal regulators to dedicate more of its wireless spectrum to service in areas such as San Jose and Phoenix, which it says will help accommodate the new traffic over the next few months.

"We're very happy about our ability to (support new customers)," said Rene Wukich, general manager of Sprint Broadband's Silicon Valley division. "It's not like we have to put new fiber into the ground."

Happy where they can get it
The anger isn't universal, however. In areas where demand is lower, customers love the service, which brings blazing downloads to areas that can't get DSL or cable.

Marc Pope in Colorado Springs says he had terrible trouble with installation--wind knocked down his wireless dish, and technicians had to come out three times to make the service work. But now his download speeds are faster than DSL.

Fixed wireless also has served as a stable, solid way for small Internet service providers in rural areas to reach customers who otherwise would never have had access to high-speed service. Marlon Shafer, who runs a small ISP in Odessa, Wash., says he serves customers with a 1MB connection with less trouble than he sees using ordinary telephone wires.

"Just ask any of us ISPs out there, and you can see that (Sprint's problem) was expected by all of us regardless of the technology used," he wrote in an e-mail to "It's not the technology, it's the companies involved."

Analysts say Sprint is caught in an uncomfortable situation, with the need to compete with other phone and cable modem services today, and to show federal regulators quickly that the fixed wireless service is a viable option. The Federal Communications Commission is looking--albeit somewhat skeptically--at using Sprint's wireless Internet spectrum instead as a way to extend the overtaxed mobile phone spectrum.

The combination of forces is pushing Sprint to sign up as many customers as it can and patch its existing network as much as possible without making hugely expensive upgrades, analysts say.

"They're not sure what's going to come next," said Alex Fuentes, an analyst with Allied Business Intelligence. "They don't want to make a massive investment, and then have to make another massive investment right behind that."