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gone online. SPRINT FINALLY OFFERS ITS INTERNET ACCESS WITH PASSPORT LAUNCH: AT&T, MCI STARTED ADS FOR THEIR OFFERINGS TO CONSUMERS LAST YEAR

By Published on .

Sprint Corp. today breaks the first consumer campaign for its Internet access product dubbed Passport. That's close to a year after AT&T Corp. and MCI Communications Corp. launched their entries.

Advertising targets consumers who already own computers but have yet to get online. Creative features a meeting of high-tech nerds who moan and groan at the news that Sprint has developed an access product so simple even their mothers could get online.

BERGEN NOT FEATURED

Although the 30-second TV spot briefly refers to Candice Bergen, it doesn't spotlight her as a spokeswoman.

The campaign from J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, will run through the second quarter, primarily national spot buys with limited print ads supporting.

Like most other players, Sprint is offering a 30-day free trial and will then charge $19.95 per month for unlimited access.

Although Sprint late last year partnered with Viacom's Block-buster Entertainment to co-promote Sprint Internet Passport within Blockbuster's stores, this effort marks the first significant move into the Internet market.

Sprint does have about 60,000 subscribers for its access service; AT&T boasts about 600,000 for its WorldNet and MCI touts more than 200,000 MCI Internet sub-scribers.

CHARGES ON PHONE BILL

While most telecommunica-tions companies are promising to charge for Internet service right on the phone bill, MCI is the only one currently doing so.

"We watched our competitors stumble to handle demand for access," said Mickey Freeman, brand manager for Sprint Internet Passport. "We waited to launch our product because we think brand equity and trust simply can't be compromised for anything."

AT&T faced severe problems upon WorldNet's launch with beefing up its network to handle a sudden onslaught of traffic, as well as distributing the software quickly enough to satisfy consumer demand. The past couple of months have proven extremely trying for America Online, which also is having major trouble providing reliable or easy access to subscribers.

"Providing Internet access is a commodity market right now," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research. "But providers can distinguish themselves with service, as we're seeing with the many problems certain providers are now experiencing. . . . If Sprint can prove reliability, they'll be in excellent shape."

SPRINT TAKES HIGH ROAD

While many Internet access providers are capitalizing on AOL's network problems with ads that take almost direct issue with the service, Sprint has chosen to take the high road.

"Advertising we launch is not based on what's going on with our competitors," said Kieran Hannon, senior partner-account director at JWT. "We focused on using humor to target new users and show them why they should get online with Sprint."

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