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Sprint wireless Web reaches 1 million, sort of

The company says that its mobile phone Net access service reached 1 million customers, although just what that figure means is still unclear.

Sprint PCS said Monday that its mobile phone Net access service had reached 1 million customers, although just what that figure means is still unclear.

The million customer mark appears strong for a service that has been offered for just over a year. But in fact, only about half of the 1 million customers are those who have actually subscribed to the data service. The remainder are free trial customers and "casual users" who may simply have played with the Net access function on their phones a few times. With many of its plans, Sprint offers customers up to six months of free access to the data service.

Nor is the company divulging its level of "churn," or the number of customers who sign up for the service but later drop it. These numbers will be critical in determining how stable the company's subscriber list actually is, and how quickly it will grow, analysts say.

"This is actually a very high percentage of the people using Sprint's (voice) wireless service," said Eddie Hold, an analyst with research firm Current Analysis. "I'm not convinced these will all be regular (data) users."

At the close of the third quarter of 1999, the company said it had 8.61 million total customers.

The company says that about half of the 1 million are actually paying subscribers of its "Wireless Web" service. The other 500,000 are free trial customers and what Sprint calls "casual users," or customers who have tried the data service at least a few times without putting it on their monthly plan. These customers are charged for each individual use.

Analyst Iain Gillott of iGillott Research estimates that about 6 percent of U.S. wireless phone customers also subscribe to mobile data services. Sprint, which has taken a lead in marketing the services, is generally viewed to have a substantial lead on its rivals in that arena, although AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless all have more voice subscribers.

The company has stepped ahead of its rivals in readying its wireless data service for new consumers, striking a deal last week to give people who use Palm handheld computers Net access using Sprint's network and creating an online music storage service to use along with a Samsung phone that can store and play MP3 files.

Sprint PCS also announced Monday that Juno's online service would be added to its stable of "Wireless Web" options. That means Juno subscribers will be able to check their email and home pages on the Sprint wireless phones. Sprint already has a similar deal with America Online.