Incorporated: 1986 as US Sprint Communications Company, L.P.
Sales: $23.6 billion (2000)
NAIC: 51331 Wired Telecommunications Carriers; 513322 Cellular and Other Wireless Telecommunications.
Sprint Corporation is the private holding company for two publicly traded firms, Sprint FON and Sprint PCS. Sprint FON (“fiber optic network”) operates a wire-based telecommunications business, providing local and long-distance telephone service, integrated voice, data, and Internet connections, and a phone directory publishing arm. Sprint PCS (“personal communications services”) maintains the largest digital wireless network in the nation. The unit is the fourth-largest wireless company in the United States. Long a distant number three in the nation’s long-distance telephone market, Sprint was responsible for a series of technological innovations in the 1980s and 1990s, including installing the first coast-to-coast fiber optic transmission network in the United States. It continues to innovate with new communications technology, deploying new forms of high-speed data transmission networks. Sprint also has a sizable international telecommunications market.
Predecessors in the Early 20th Century
Sprint traces part of its origin to the Southern Pacific Communications Corporation, a division of the Southern Pacific Railroad. During the early years of electronic communication, it was common for railroads to install telegraph wire on poles along its tracks. This enabled dispatchers to monitor trains and relay track conditions to locomotive engineers. With the advent of telephony, these wires were converted to voice communications. The complex nature of railroad communications necessitated the installation of telephone switches and multiplexing equipment, which allowed several conversations to be carried over the same pair of wires. By the 1940s, these railroads had established enormous long-distance networks that were independent of the Bell System and other telephone companies.
The Southern Pacific Railroad operated its telephone system as an independent company, called the Southern Pacific Communications Corporation, or SPCC. Like all telephone systems, this network used copper wire as its transport medium. But by the late 1950s, the Southern Pacific and other railroads started to use radio systems, which eliminated the need to maintain thousands of miles of aerial wire and enabled dispatchers to communicate directly with engineers. SPCC continued to operate its “switched private network” for official interoffice communications. But during the 1970s, maintenance costs for the wireline system were no longer economical.
In 1983, the GTE Corporation offered to purchase SPCC, which included a satellite company and the Switched Private Network Telecommunications group, known as “Sprint.” GTE, parent company of General Telephone, the United States’ largest non-Bell telecommunications company, hoped to add the system to its own toll office network to form the backbone for a new long-distance unit to compete with AT&T. Federal antitrust action obliged AT&T to divest itself of its 22 local Bell companies by 1984. In addition, AT&T’s long-distance monopoly was ended, clearing the way for competition.
GTE knew that a long-distance network would be relatively simple to create and extremely profitable once in operation. It had the engineering and switching capability but lacked the long-distance corridors in which it could install wiring. While Sprint came with a dilapidated wire network, it offered hundreds of miles of open easements between major cities. GTE completed its acquisition of SPCC later in 1983, rechristening the operation GTE Sprint Communications.
Sprint’s second parent was a Kansas phone company that began in 1899 as the Brown Telephone company. It controlled a local Kansas and a midwestern market. In the 1950s, the company was one of the top alternatives to Ma Bell in the country. It changed its name in the 1940s to United Utilities and again in 1972 to United Telecommunications. United Telecom was a $1 billion company by the mid-1970s, with over 3.5 million telephone lines in markets across the country. With the break-up of AT&T in 1984, United Telecom began development of its own long-distance company, called US Telecom. Hundreds of long-distance companies had emerged at the same time, each looking for just a piece of AT&T’s hugely profitable business. Few of these actually operated alternative networks, choosing instead to simply aggregate traffic over AT&T’s high-capacity data lines.
The Nation’s First Complete Fiber Optic Network
GTE Sprint installed fiber optic cable along its routes—a process begun by SPCC—because the transmission medium operated at extremely high frequencies, used virtually incorruptible digital signals, and was impervious to electronic interference. A single cable, the size of a common electrical cord, could carry as many calls as a three-foot thick copper cable.
The technology was not lost on US Telecom, whose president, Bill Esrey, announced that the company would construct its own nationwide fiber optic network and fight for a position in the long distance market along with GTE, MCI, and AT&T. To bolster the small network, United Telecom purchased U.S. Telephone Communications, a fledgling Dallas-based long-distance carrier, and easements along key routes of the Consolidated Rail Corporation between cities in New England, mid-Atlantic, and midwestern states.
Esrey’s plan for a long-distance company was denounced as impossible by experts quoted in Telephony, TE&M, and other trade publications. The critics would probably have been proven correct—the costs of assembling such a network were astronomical. But Esrey, who was named president and CEO of United Telecom in 1985, believed his goal could be attained—before competitors gained a lock on the market—by taking on a partner. In GTE Sprint, Esrey saw a well-capitalized partner with an identical strategy and a largely complementary network. He organized discussions with GTE and in 1986 announced the merger of US Telecom and GTE Sprint. The 50-50 joint venture (technically a limited partnership) was created on July 1, 1986 under the name US Sprint. Commensurate with the creation of US Sprint, the company introduced its distinctive logo, a diamond split by a series of horizontal lines. The lines, reportedly meant to represent fiber optic channels, become thicker from left to right.
Because United Telecom and GTE operated hundreds of local exchanges, they had to guarantee that their customers would have equal access to AT&T and MCI. This would prevent US Sprint from gaining a long-distance monopoly among United Telecom and GTE customers. In October 1986, the new company introduced an imaginative advertising campaign, featuring a tiny pin that was dropped on a table in front of a telephone receiver. As it hit, the “ting” could be heard on a phone thousands of miles away. The ad maintained that this clarity was made possible by US Sprint’s fiber optic network, implying that it was superior to AT&T’s wireline system and MCFs microwave network. The image in the advertisement was so powerful and the campaign so successful that the tiny pin came to symbolize the superiority of US Sprint’s network.
Within nine months, US Sprint had doubled its number of customers. However, the company was ill-prepared for this growth. Bell companies, which dominated the nation’s population centers, were slow to establish equal access to US Sprint, MCI, and other competitors of AT&T. Often, customers had difficulty using US Sprint. Many who got through reportedly received wildly inaccurate bills. These problems took months to iron out, inspiring AT&T to launch a massive ad campaign to woo customers back.
United Telecom and GTE channeled more than $2 billion into US Sprint, mostly for construction and marketing. The company issued millions of “EON Cards” containing dialing instructions that would enable callers to gain access to US Sprint from any telephone. The company also built a National Operations Control Center (NOCC) in Kansas City that joined up with another such center in Atlanta. The NOCC managed call routing nationwide and enabled US Sprint to offer the nation’s first non-AT&T long-distance operator services. US Sprint equipped its network almost entirely with switches built by Northern Telecom, a major competitor of AT&T in the manufacturing market.
In planning its long-distance network, US Sprint adopted a flat architecture in which calls were passed from center to center, and routed around congested switching offices. By contrast, AT&T’s network used a hierarchical design, in which calls of only a few dozen miles were routed over a bottom-tier network. Calls of a few hundred miles were passed along to a higher-tier network, and calls of a thousand miles or more were carried on yet another network.
The simplicity of US Sprint’s network enabled engineers to make changes in its switching software instantaneously. AT&T’s system required a series of staggered cut-overs. One of the changes US Sprint made was the conversion in 1988 to Signaling System 7, a highly efficient routing technology that improved network management and speeded call completion. The system also enabled US Sprint to begin offering its own 800 services in competition with AT&T.
From its small-town roots, Sprint has evolved into a global communications company that serves 23 million customers in more than 70 countries. With more than 80,000 employees worldwide and an unmatched portfolio of telecommunications products and services, Sprint is continuing its legacy of leadership and innovation in the twenty-first century.
In a spirited demonstration of the obsolescence of the microwave networks operated by AT&T and MCI, US Sprint blew up one of the last of its own microwave towers in February 1988. This action inspired AT&T and MCI to speed efforts to convert their systems over to fiber optic cable. By May 1988, US Sprint completed the last cut-over of traffic from the old US Telecom and GTE Sprint networks to the fiber optic system. The company was now 100 percent fiber optic.
Evolving Technologies in the Early 1990s
In November 1988 US Sprint completed construction of its third transcontinental route. This helped US Sprint to win a contract to handle 40 percent of the federal government’s long-distance business through a system called FTS2000. AT&T won the remaining 60 percent. The division of service between the two companies ensured that the government could maintain long-distance communications in the event either company suffered a network failure. The government became US Sprint’s largest customer. Companies such as Grumman, Calvin Klein, Elizabeth Arden, Chesebrough-Pond’s, and National Starch also became major US Sprint accounts.
In April 1989, US Sprint won its battle to gain access to millions of Bell company telephones whose long-distance service could be provided only by AT&T. U.S. District Court Judge Harold Greene, who presided over the break-up of the Bell System, ordered pay phone franchisees to select a long-distance company or be assigned one at random. This provided US Sprint with an opportunity to gain thousands of new accounts, handling long-distance calls placed from Bell company pay phones. Also in April, US Sprint reported its first profitable quarter, earning $27.5 million.
GTE, however, had encountered financial difficulties resulting from a battle with another party for control of options on US Sprint. The company also needed cash to pay down debts and finance other areas of its business. GTE’s chairman, Rocky Johnson, announced that his company wanted out of US Sprint. United Telecom purchased a 30.1 percent interest in US Sprint from GTE in July 1989, leaving Johnson’s company with a 19.9 percent stake until such time that United Telecom could generate the funds to complete the buyout. In August, US Sprint acquired Long Distance/USA, a Honolulu-based company whose bilingual agents handled calls between Hawaii and Japan. The acquisition left US Sprint with a 50 percent market share of call traffic out of Hawaii. Telenet, a satellite communications division that evolved from the SPCC’s original satellite operations, was merged with US Sprint’s international voice services in January 1990 and renamed Sprint International.
Expanding its presence in the global telecommunications market, US Sprint purchased a 50 percent interest in PTAT-1, a transatlantic fiber optic cable system run in conjunction with Britain’s Cable & Wireless. The relationship was later expanded to allow US Sprint to engage in joint marketing efforts in Britain with Cable & Wireless. The company established another marketing arrangement with Maryland National Bank (later called MBNA America) to issue Visa and MasterCard charge cards. The “Priority Card” provided all the features of the FON Card, while enabling users to build bonus rebates from credit purchases. It was also intended to match a similar card from AT&T.
US Sprint launched a new advertising campaign in October 1990 featuring Candice Bergen, star of the television series “Murphy Brown.” Bergen’s effectiveness as a spokesperson grew with the show’s popularity, eventually making her the most valuable spokesperson in advertising. By 1991, US Sprint had garnered a seemingly small nine percent of the nation’s long-distance business, placing it behind MCI, with 14 percent, and AT&T, with 64 percent. This was, however, 9 percent of a $70 billion market, and it provided United Telecom with about half of its total annual revenue. Hard-earned market share gains of only a tenth of a percent represented $70 million in revenue.
To win those bits and pieces of the market, US Sprint inaugurated its Priority marketing program, extending discounts to customers with monthly billing of $20 or more. But much of the company’s efforts were concentrated in the business market. US Sprint operated more than 1,200 video-conferencing centers, enabling business customers to conduct visual presentations without having to fly and lodge their participants. In addition, US Sprint was the first major carrier to offer public frame relay data service, a high-speed digital transmission service unencumbered by standard error-correction, thus allowing more information to be transmitted in less time. This was followed by worldwide virtual private network services, in which a customer could communicate between offices in different countries as easily as between offices in the same building.
Continuing its international growth, US Sprint was licensed to construct a fiber optic network in the United Kingdom, using canal and river routes owned by the British Waterways Board. It began planning partnership agreements for several more submarine cable projects spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean. The company branched into Canada and established interconnection arrangements with TelMex, the Mexican telephone authority, and the Russian telephone network. US Sprint also entered the Uni source partnership with Swedish and Dutch firms, enabling it to win over another major customer, Unilever.
- Brown Telephone is founded in Kansas.
- GTE acquires the Southern Pacific Communications Corporation (SPCC) and renames the company GTE Sprint Communications.
- United Telecom enters long-distance phone market.
- GTE Sprint and US Telecom merge.
- Following reorganization, the company is renamed Sprint Corp.
- Proposed merger of Sprint with WorldCom falls through.
United Telecom completed its acquisition of US Sprint from GTE in 1992. The long-distance group’s revenues dwarfed those of United Telecom’s other operations, necessitating a corporate reorganization. Bill Esrey led an effort to drop “US” from the Sprint name in order to better reflect the globalization of the company. He also suggested changing United Telecom’s name to Sprint, thereby making more efficient use of promotional budgets. Thus, US Sprint became Sprint Communications, and United Telecom was renamed the Sprint Corporation. Later that year the parent company successfully bid to acquire Centel, a company with local telephone operations in 13 states and numerous cellular properties. The Centel operations were folded into Sprint. By 1993 the company served over 6 million customers. It was the third-largest long-distance provider in the United States, but it remained far behind the top two, AT&T and MCI. Revenue was just under $13 billion by 1994, compared to $75 billion for AT&T.
Strategies in the Late 1990s and After
The company continued to push for long-distance customers, while also providing local service, primarily in rural areas. By 1997, Sprint’s customer base had grown to seven million local service customers, giving it about 10 percent of the nation’s long-distance market. This territory was fiercely fought over, particularly by AT&T and MCI, which ran hundreds of television ads touting their superior long-distance service and bashing competitors. Continuing its more restrained advertising, Sprint seemed destined never to catch up. In the late 1990s, the company began looking for new ways to set itself apart. In 1998, Sprint began advertising a new generation of telecommunications. It hoped to offer high-speed digital connections that would allow simultaneous transmission of voice, data, and video, as well as providing Internet connections, called an Integrated On-Demand Network, known as ION. The company first marketed ION to business customers, who could be more easily persuaded than consumers to shell out for expensive new equipment. Sprint started selling ION to residential consumers in 1999, beginning in its home city of Kansas City and in other southwestern locales. The high-speed ION service bundled local, long-distance, and Internet service charges onto a single bill.
The company’s wireless division also grew through the late 1990s. It was in fourth place among wireless communications providers, behind Verizon, Cingular, and AT&T. It had just over 8 million customers, slightly more than it claimed for local telephone service. Yet the wireless division did not make money. Another growing but money-losing venture was Sprint’s Internet transport (or “backbone”) service, which gave support, monitoring, and performance reporting to web sites. Not a leader in any of its major service areas, the company was ripe for a takeover. The telecommunications industry had seen a wave of consolidation after 1996, when the Telecommunications Act of that year set the stage for increased competition for long-distance customers between the regional Bell companies (which had formed after the break-up of AT&T in 1984) and other carriers. Several smaller or little-known companies became blockbusters, including the new parent of MCI, WorldCom Inc. In October 1999 WorldCom offered $115 billion for Sprint, an enormous price considering Sprint’s 1998 revenues were just over $17 billion. But WorldCom, which had been on an acquisition spree since 1995 and had bought parts of AOL and CompuServe in 1997, was eager to get hold of Sprint’s wireless business, which had some promising new technology in the pipe. The merger would have created an enormous new company, and regulators in the U.S. and Europe alike raised questions about the anti-competitive implications of the deal. Sprint’s stockholders approved the merger in April 2000. Yet in July 2000 federal regulators ruled that the merger should not go through. Sprint had put many of its plans on hold for the nine months when the deal was pending, and meanwhile many top executives cashed out and left.
The collapse of the WorldCom merger set back some of Sprint’s plans, particularly for international expansion. Yet it still had a unique portfolio of properties. Unlike most of its competitors, Sprint was spread among four main business areas, with its local phone, long-distance, internet, and wireless operations. The company hoped to be able to cross-sell its services to existing customers, bundling its various services. However, by late 2001 it was clear that the telecommunications market was down. Sprint laid off over 6,000 employees in October, while the industry as whole shed 225,000 workers that year. Despite the soft economy, Sprint kept on with investments in new technology. It shut down its ION project, which had debuted in some cities in 1999, citing technological and economic difficulties with the deployment. But it then contracted with equipment-maker Nortel Networks Corp. to deploy a new switching technology known as “packet” network. The packet-based system allowed more traffic on telecommunications lines. Sprint vowed to put all its phone lines on the packet system eventually, which would both save the company money and allow it to offer more services to its customers. Sprint invested in upgrades of its wireless network and continued to gain customers for its new Wireless Web service. The company seemed prepared to ride out falling revenues and a stagnant market in the early 2000s, as it continued to plan new products and services.
Sprint FON Group; Sprint PCS Group; Call-Net Enterprises Inc.
Sprint Global Markets; Sprint North Supply; Sprint Publishing and Advertising.
Verizon Communications Inc.; Cingular Wireless; AT&T Corp.; Qwest Communications International Inc.
Chakravarty, Subrata N., “Nimble Upstart,” Forbes, May 8, 1995, pp. 96–9.
Crockett, Roger, “‘Only Sprint Has It All’—Or Does It?,” Business Week, June 15, 1998, p. 51.
Fierman, Jaclyn, and Suzanne Barlyn, “When Genteel Rivals Become Mortal Enemies,” Fortune, May 15, 1995, p. 90.
Heinzl, Mark, “Nortel Wins $1.1 Billion Contract from Sprint to Upgrade Network,” Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2001, p. B6.
Kupfer, Andrew, “The Telecom Wars,” Fortune, March 3, 1997, pp. 136–42.
“Let’s Celebrate!,” Sprint Monthly, July 1991, pp. 14–17.
Marcial, Gene, “Sprint’s Phone Could Ring Again,” Business Week, September 10, 2001, p. 139.
Schiesel, Seth, “Sprint Still Aspires to Offer One-Stop Communications,” New York Times, January 15, 2001, pp, C1, C6.
Sloan, Allen, and Anjali Arora, “Behind the Phone Frenzy,” Newsweek, October 18, 1999, p. 58.
update: A. Woodward