updated 7/7/2005 6:27:40 PM ET 2005-07-07T22:27:40

Sprint Corp. announced its arrival onto the wireless broadband scene on Thursday, more than a year and a half after one of its top rivals, Verizon Wireless, started offering broadband Internet service.

Sprint Corp. plans to provide mobile broadband service to about 150 million people by early next year. The service, using EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) technology, will be available in business districts and airports in 34 markets by the end of this month. It already came online this month in 17 of those markets, including Kansas City.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based company said rates will start at $40 per month for a limited-access plan, and unlimited access will cost business customers about $80 a month.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, began offering its EV-DO service in October 2003 in San Diego and Washington, D.C., then expanded the service into other regions soon thereafter. It currently offers its wireless broadband service in 50 markets.

Cingular Wireless offers a high-speed service using a different technology in six cities and plans to add at least 10 more markets by the end of the year.

Late last month, Sprint told The Associated Press it decided to launch its EV-DO technology in select “dense business corridors” and airports, rather than wait until it could offer the service across entire markets, because of publicity about Verizon’s expansion of its broadband service.

But on Thursday, Oliver Valente, Sprint’s chief technology officer, said the company wanted to wait to offer the service until the required devices were broadly available. Valente said Sprint’s immersion into high-speed wireless service was “timed differently than some of the competition. We think we’re at the right point and right time with deployment.”

“They (Verizon) certainly launched theirs first; there’s no denying that,” said John Polivka, a spokesman for Sprint. “We announced last June we would develop EV-DO by this point in time, and indeed we have done so. We will have substantially closed the gap by the end of this year.”

Lisa Pierce, vice president of Forrester Research Inc., said Thursday that Sprint’s announcement means Verizon no longer has such a stranglehold on wireless broadband.

“It introduces competition into the market, which is always a good thing,” Pierce said. “It looks like Sprint’s initial geographical deployment is very limited in metro areas and will be filled out over time.”

She said one of the big questions now is whether Sprint’s new offering will influence Cingular’s deployment of its own broadband service, which uses technology called UMTS.

Pierce said she expects Sprint to catch up with Verizon in the number of wireless broadband users in the first quarter, depending on how much Verizon expands its markets by then.

“Anybody who’s been on the new, faster services, they don’t want to go back to the slower ones,” Pierce said.

Sprint said EV-DO has average download speeds of 400 to 700 kilobits per second, which is comparable to entry-level DSL and cable broadband services. It’s slower than Wi-Fi connections, but it gives users more flexibility because they can get online anywhere there’s a cellular signal. Wi-Fi signals can travel only several hundred feet.

Wireless companies see mobile Internet access as one of the more promising growth areas. Valente said Sprint has seen a sharp rise in the number of downloads, photos shared and ringtones purchased by wireless users in the past year.

“That, coupled with the fact that 70 percent of the market has not yet purchased mobile content, in our view, is indicative of the tremendous growth opportunities for wireless services, and we will continue to capitalize on our leadership position,” he said.

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

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