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Remember the map wars between AT&T (NYSE: T ) Wireless and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) Wireless? Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) thought it looked like great fun, and it's joined the fracas with a direct-attack ad of its own.
A new Sprint ad shows two young dudes lounging on a park bench -- or rather, one guy lounges while the other is frantically battling his cell phone. That phone turns out to be an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone, and as it turns out, the more relaxed guy, Matt, can help his buddy out.
"My friend Steve's iPhone is cool, but it's limited to AT&T's 3G speeds," he says. "So I'm gonna use the Overdrive 4G mobile hotspot to make it up to 10 times faster. While that's happening, I'm gonna enjoy this tasty snack." He pulls out a Sprint-connected portable Wi-Fi hotspot and -- of course -- a tasty apple, and Steve's 3G troubles are over.
Cue the legal fireworks. If AT&T got incensed over Verizon using Ma Bell's own 3G coverage maps as a weapon, you have to think that this no-nonsense critique of the AT&T network will cause some aggravation as well.
Verizon could at least back its claims with some solid data, even if AT&T's spotty coverage has reportedly improved since then. Sprint is picking cherries to climb the Apple tree here. That "10 times the speed" claim rests on a worst-case 3G connection and the most positive 4G data Sprint can muster on its own network. "Triple the speed" might be closer to the truth on average.
Besides, Sprint's 4G network has only opened up in 33 cities so far, with a heavy Midwestern concentration. Major population centers like San Francisco and New York, where AT&T's network quality has drawn the most ire so far, are not covered at all -- so Matt's clever solution wouldn't help Steve at all in most cases. Sprint's own coverage information will make that very clear if you try to order an Overdrive gadget.
With iPhones, iPads, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Androids flooding the market, all the major service providers need to figure out how to handle heavy Web use and streaming video for previously unheard-of millions of customers nationwide. This Sprint trinket and the accompanying ad campaign seems designed to steal iPhone users from AT&T, but Sprint isn't really ready to take most of 'em on anyway.
By the time Sprint has covered most of the country, chances are that Verizon and AT&T have gotten their own 4G installations in gear. After the undisputed failure of the Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) Pre smartphone, Android handsets look like better ammunition for Sprint's war against the Big Two than the 4G network is.