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Sprint pushes portal to lure DSL users

The long distance firm jumps into the content race with plans for a high-speed Net portal to distinguish its broadband offerings from competing cable and wireless Net services.

Long distance firm Sprint today outlined plans for a high-speed Net portal aimed at distinguishing the company's broadband offerings from competing cable and wireless Internet services.

But while long on broadband ambition, Sprint's plans are still short on delivery. The service will be available only in a few of the markets where Sprint offers local telephone service--one city today, with an additional three or four cities by the end of the year, according to the firm.

Sprint announced plans to develop its own portal-like page optimized for high-speed Net connections, with multimedia content from Broadcast.com, MSNBC.com, and interactive games provider MediaStation.

These deals are just the beginning of Sprint's plans to draw more subscribers to its high-speed Internet service, the company said. Further down the line, more deals will be announced with national and local content providers, software companies, and other application providers to send their wares over high-speed wires.

"We're developing a content strategy that allows us to pursue national and local content providers," said Greg Crosby, vice president of data services for Sprint's local phone division. "We want to do more than just sell [consumers] fast pipes."

The service will be offered in conjunction with EarthLink, which Sprint uses as its Internet service provider for both dial-up and high-speed Net customers, Crosby said. The service will initially be available only through Sprint's digital subscriber line (DSL) service. DSL is a technology that allows existing phone lines to handle simultaneous high-speed Internet and voice traffic.

Sprint is following the same path that many of the young broadband providers are paving. Analysts agree that Net access companies must give subscribers a reason to sign up for high-speed services that cost $20 or $30 more than most monthly dial-up Internet bills. Content offerings are key, analysts say--give consumers new access to video, games, or other applications they can't get on a dial-up connection, and they'll flock to the high-speed service.

The logic is similar to America Online's business model--consumers can get virtually identical Internet access from any ISP, but AOL's offering includes a host of content unavailable elsewhere on the Web.

"Sprint is doing the right thing," said Michelle Pelino, an Internet analyst for the Yankee Group. "If nothing is different on the content side, there's no reason to pay for high-speed service."

More content than pipes
But if today's announcement marks a fast entry into the content race, the company's long-term outlook is less clear. The trouble is, as with so many other broadband access providers, Sprint now has more content deals than markets in which to offer services.

The high-speed services will initially be available only in those few markets where Sprint is the local phone provider, and where it has upgraded its lines and electronics to provide high-speed Internet access.

Today, that means Charlottesville, Virginia. Las Vegas will come on board in the next two to three weeks, with Orlando, Florida, a few months behind.

Meanwhile, EarthLink is rolling out a parallel DSL service over MCI WorldCom's lines, which will give it a semblance of national broadband coverage. The Sprint deals announced today won't be available through this particular flavor of EarthLink's services, however.

Analysts did note that Sprint has stepped ahead of most other DSL providers, culling content from a variety of independent sources.

The other big local phone companies and ISPs are, for the most part, developing their own broadband-oriented start pages. But where Bell Atlantic is partnering with Snap to provide its high-speed startup page, and America Online is still in the process of developing its AOL Plus high-speed service, Sprint is now well on the way to developing its own unique set of content services. (Snap is a joint venture between CNET and NBC.)

"With these announcements, Sprint and EarthLink are the first DSL providers to have forged their own independent deals with content and applications providers," said Joe Lazlo, an industry analyst with Jupiter Communications. "This is something that has concerned us about DSL providers for a while."