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Hot-spot deal adds fuel to Wi-Fi debate

Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless are negotiating to let customers use each other's wireless hot spots, highlighting a split among Wi-Fi companies.

Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless are negotiating whether to let each other's Wi-Fi subscribers roam between their two networks, a Sprint PCS executive said Monday.

The partnership would allow subscribers of AT&T Wireless Wi-Fi service to use the 2,100 wireless "hot spot" locations that Sprint PCS plans to launch later this year, said Jason Guesman, business marketing director at Sprint PCS. Similarly, Sprint customers would have access to AT&T's wireless network.

The negotiations are at too early a stage to provide much more detail, such as when the sharing would begin, Guesman said. In addition, the two carriers haven't decided whether--as with many cellular plans--they will charge consumers roaming fees.

The talks highlight a split among major U.S. cellular carriers over how to operate their networks of hot spots, which are public areas where Wi-Fi-based wireless access to the Internet or to a corporate computer system is sold.

AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS want their customers to roam freely among different networks. But hot-spot operators Cometa and T-Mobile USA prefer to keep their locations off-limits to major competitors.

Roaming gives cellular service providers a quick way to expand and take advantage of the popularity of Wi-Fi networking. But closed-network supporters say their rivals are likely to create a bad first impression in setting up clunky networks that pose enormous administrative problems.

But Sprint PCS's Guesman said keeping networks closed off, as T-Mobile and others would like to do, would end up stifling Wi-Fi market growth.

"T-Mobile can't claim to be a huge proponent of Wi-Fi but at same time propose a model that will kill Wi-Fi in a public space," he said. "It will not survive under that model."

A T-Mobile representative said the company is open to Wi-Fi roaming but has yet to secure "the right kinds of roaming agreements that ensure an optimal and reliable customer experience as well as agreements that make sense from a business and technical perspective."

Sprinting into Wi-Fi
Sprint PCS also on Monday unveiled more details about its Wi-Fi subscription plan, which it is calling PCS Wi-Fi Access.

The carrier plans to sell Wi-Fi access inside 800 different locations by later this summer. By the end of the year, it expects to expand to a total of 2,100 locations.

The carrier did not announce price details for the service. Generally, Wi-Fi is sold either on a monthly subscription basis or via day passes--which usually cost less than $10--that allow access for 24 hours at one particular location.

Most of the initial Sprint hot-spot locations will cater to the needs of traveling business executives and will be placed in airport executive lounges and hotels, Guesman said. The company plans to extend the network to convention centers as well.