updated 4/21/2005 9:48:04 PM ET 2005-04-22T01:48:04

Sprint Corp. said Thursday it had signed agreements to dramatically expand its network of locations offering wireless Internet service.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based telecommunications company said the deal with four broadband providers and a virtual network enabler would increase the number of "hot spots" available to Sprint PCS Wi-Fi Access customers to more than 19,000.

The closest rival, Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile USA, has 15,194 sites, more than half overseas. Sprint says it plans to have 25,000 sites by the end of the year, evenly split between domestic and overseas.

Wi-Fi technology has gained public attention as providers have set up hot spots in Internet traffic-heavy areas, such as airports, college campuses and some retail locations, such as Starbucks.

Industry experts said the need for Wi-Fi has been mitigated somewhat as telecommunications companies roll out more advanced wireless devices with lightning-quick Internet connections. Verizon Wireless, for example, is now selling devices with Internet speeds approaching those of landlines and Sprint is planning to roll out similar devices this summer.

But Wes Dittmer, general manager for Sprint's WLAN Services, said the company has always viewed Wi-Fi as a complement to those other technologies, rather than an alternative, and the expanded system will give customers more options.

"We're going to be able to provide these networks to them and given them the ability to easily connect and stay productive as they move from point A to point B," Dittmer said.

Industry experts were mixed on their assessment of Sprint's plan, pointing out that Wi-Fi has been slow to catch on in the general public. But they said it could be a good marketing tool to attract users and noted that companies are experimenting with Wi-Fi networks in the home.

"They're trying to look more attractive as a network that reaches everywhere," said Ellen Daley, an analyst with Forrester Research in Boston.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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