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Sprint hoping customers will pocket Net access

The company unveils a prepaid Internet access card that will allow people to buy a set amount of minutes and use them from any computer.

You can get prepaid long-distance calling cards and prepaid wireless phones, so why not prepaid Internet access?

That was Sprint's argument as it announced Tuesday a new program in which consumers can buy a set amount of Internet access on a calling card and use those minutes from any computer without going through another Internet service provider. The Westwood, Kan., company said the card will be most useful to infrequent Internet users who do not need unlimited access and to frequent travelers who use multiple PCs.

But Bruce Kasrel, an analyst at Forrester Research, said he does not see the card getting a great deal of consumer acceptance. He said any consumer who would go through the effort to obtain a card most likely already has Internet access.

"This is more of an emergency type of service," he said.

The announcement is the latest in a string of moves by Sprint to reposition itself as a data services provider. The company's stock has lost two-thirds of its value in the last six months, and chief executive William Esrey has said moving out of the eroding long-distance market is a must for the third-largest provider in that market.

The Sprint Prepaid Internet card will allow people to send and receive email as well as surf the Web. The amount of remaining minutes available will be checkable through Sprint's Web site via a personalized home page. In addition to infrequent Internet users and travelers, parents could use the card to control the amount of time their children spend online, Sprint said in a statement.

However, Kasrel said the cards cannot compete with free ISP services such as NetZero, although he did acknowledge that some free ISPs have been shutting down lately.

"Once they're all out of business, maybe this (prepaid ISP access) is interesting," Kasrel said.

Kasrel said he did not believe travelers would buy the card because "business travelers have laptops and nearly all of them by now have a nationwide Internet provider." The card is best suited for computers without Internet access accounts already on them, Kasrel said, which he said are increasingly rare.

Sprint did not disclose the per-minute rate it would charge, and a company representative could not be reached for comment. But a Sprint statement said the card would be suitable for someone using the Internet less than 12 hours per month. Assuming a $20 per month unlimited fee for an average ISP, Sprint would have to offer a rate less than $1.67 per hour, or 2.7 cents per minute, to be competitive. It was also unclear Tuesday when the company would make the card available.

Sprint's Internet service is aided by the fact that it owns its own nationwide fiber-optic network and is rapidly expanding the number of data centers it operates around the United States. The company also recently launched an e-Solutions Web hosting unit.