Sprint PCS ( PCS) launched its highly anticipated high-speed wireless data network this morning, marking the first time U.S. users will have nationwide access to 3G-like services. Perhaps what's most surprising about the launch is not the fact that Sprint is now offering high-speed Internet services, but that the depth and breadth of services and devices it will offer on day one. Six color-screen phones from Handspring ( HAND), Samsung, Sanyo ( SANYY) and Hitachi ( HIT), along with a Toshiba-branded PocketPC device, will be available at launch ranging in price from $180 to $500. The service, called PCS Vision, will let users surf the Web, download e-mail, send and receive text and pictures, and provide other services at speeds slightly higher than a desktop's conventional dial-up modem. It's a bold maneuver, say observers, but one that the company is hoping will at first drive more customers into its retail outlets -- regardless of interest in high-tech data offerings -- and upsell them later. But for a service that riffs on the "Clarity You Can See and Hear" motif, it's a sobering aside that the company actually sees this initially more as a gamble for warm bodies than a take-it-to-the-bank business strategy, for now. While company executives expressed high hopes about the network, they were also cautious not to overhype expectations. In an interview with TheStreet.com, Sprint PCS president Charles Levine declined to spell out even approximately how many new or old subscribers would be lured in by fancy color graphics and wireless entertainment and information. "They may not even use data initially," he said. Still, they're leaving few things to chance. What's more certain is that the company will spend "millions and millions" on marketing, according to Levine, who was surrounded by a panoply of color-screen devices and a laptop with a PC card that accessed the network. "We put $1.5 billion in this network," Levine said. "We're not going to underspend on marketing." Oddly, America Online's Instant Messenger, the most popular desktop chat service, will not be available at launch, but will be made available within the month, said a Sprint PCS spokesman. Moreover, like its competitor, Verizon, the company plans to offer java-based downloadable games from companies including Sega, THQ and Midway. Monthly prices for combined voice and data service range from $49.99 to $119.99. Data-only prices for laptop and PDA users will range from $39.99 for 20 megabytes to $119.99 for 120 megabytes.
In anticipation of the launch, Sprint PCS shares were boosted nearly 20% last night, and gained 24 cents today, or 6.25%, to $4.08 in early afternoon trading. AT&T Wireless ( AWE) shares led the carrier pack, gaining 54 cents, or 12.71%, to $4.79. Nextel ( NXTL) shares were up 8 cents, or 1.52%, to $5.33. Shares of technology provider Qualcomm ( Q) gained 6 cents, or 0.24%, to $25.07. Sprint's launch, which enables access on a nationwide scale beginning next Monday, strikes a stark contrast to earlier launches by its carrier competitors. Verizon Wireless, a joint venture by Vodafone ( VOD) and Verizon Communications ( VZ), for instance, chose a far more muted approach to its launch in January and has slowly expanded its high-speed wireless data network's reach region by region. Verizon's network now reaches about 60% of its nationwide footprint. Both Verizon and Sprint's networks employ CDMA 1xRTT technology from Qualcomm. In past years, Sprint PCS' data offerings accounted for about $1 out of the $63 average revenue it generates per user, or less than 2%. Assuming consumers will be attracted to the new services, Levine said he expects the ratio of data revenues to overall spending by consumers to change dramatically.