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Headaches for Sprint's wireless Net service

Frustrated residents in a pocket of Silicon Valley are experiencing a powerful sign that high-speed wireless Internet service could have trouble going mainstream: It isn't working very well.

Frustrated residents in a pocket of Silicon Valley are experiencing a powerful sign that high-speed wireless Internet service could have trouble going mainstream: It isn't working very well.

Customer complaints about Sprint's new broadband wireless Internet service, which is making a strong showing in the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other cities, is a sign that wireless broadband is stumbling over similar hurdles as its high-speed predecessors. The technology is thought to be an alternative to digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable service.

"The first feedback (Sprint) got was pretty positive, although now they're beginning to hear some horror stories," said Chris Whitely, a broadband analyst for Insight Research. "But it's certainly not as bad as the DSL stories over the last year."

The ability to navigate these initial speed bumps is a critical test for Sprint and will represent a critical moment for the broader high-speed Internet market. The wireless service is one of the strongest alternatives to the cable and local phone giants, which are increasingly cornering the consumer broadband market.

Analysts say the service's move toward mainstream consumers is well-timed, as other high-speed Net providers like NorthPoint Communications collapse in an ignominious blaze of publicity. As long as the company can work out the issues emerging in areas like San Jose, Calif., it should be well-positioned, they say.

Last best hope
For several years, Sprint has looked at the "fixed wireless" business as a way to compete head-to-head with AT&T and the big local phone companies by offering high-speed Net services over its own wireless network.

Like WorldCom, Sprint spent tens of millions of dollars buying what were then viewed as regional "wireless cable" companies, which largely offered one-way video services through a wireless connection. These companies and the wireless spectrum they owned came cheap, as their services had not been overwhelmingly successful in the market.

During the period of their proposed merger, Sprint and WorldCom painted a picture of a national network of these wireless services, which would reach far more territory than do AT&T's cable lines. With the collapse of that deal, each controls only about half the United States.

WorldCom is focusing more on the business market, but for the last three months Sprint has been making a concerted marketing campaign to reach ordinary consumers in the 14 cities where it offers service.

The service has considerable advantages. Setup is relatively quick, without the weeks of waiting for a line to be approved by the phone company that faces DSL customers, although a technician still needs to come to bolt a satellite dish-style receiver to the house. People in areas that have no access to DSL or cable service--such as residents of San Francisco's Treasure Island--have turned to Sprint as a welcome last resort.

The wireless technology still has fundamental limitations, however. Although new generations are under development, wireless transmissions of this type have problems in areas of thick foliage, or where buildings or hills prevent a clear line of sight between a home and a transmission tower.

As a result, analysts forecast the technology will be a small part of the high-speed Net market for the next few years.

In the real world
San Jose is one of the areas where residents have signed up most quickly. As a result, it has served as one of the earliest tests of the technology's limits.

Like cable modem technology, wireless service quality can decline as more people in a neighborhood get online. This is the problem that has faced some San Jose residents--particularly those in the region Sprint knows as "Sector 191," but which subscribers have taken to calling "Area 51," after a "secret" Nevada U.S. military installation that conspiracy theorists have long associated with UFO sightings and other unexplained phenomena.

"The service has been very oversold, and it continues to have sporadic performance that falls below my expectations," Will Estes, a San Jose subscriber, wrote in an e-mail interview. "The problem is just that Sprint has too little bandwidth shared by too many people for the technology they selected."

The complaints are similar to those in Fremont, Calif., and other places served by Excite@Home or Road Runner's cable modem service. Early customers saw blazingly fast speeds, as they shared the download "pipes" with only a few people. But as more people came on the system, speeds trailed off.

Sprint says it's aware of the problem in a few areas, and it is already working to fix it. It is installing new equipment in San Jose that will shrink the area served by a given transmitter and receiver. This will then theoretically reduce the number of people competing for bandwidth. That should restore the fast downloads soon, the company says.

"There are some pockets that are very busy right now," said Rene Wukich, general manager of Sprint Broadband's Silicon Valley division. "None of us are perfect...But there is a proven technical upgrade. We take this very seriously."