The life and death of Sprint
Once a company with promise is now a footnote in history
Many of you have heard of or even used Sprint, either the local phone company, the long distance company, or the wireless company. Sadly, the company is now gone as of August 2020. But why? What happened? Bottom line, a number missteps along the way.
Sprint has its origins to two different companies that later joined forces to become a large telecommunications company. Its origins trace back to two companies – the Brown Telephone Company and Southern Pacific Railroad.
Brown Telephone Company
The Brown Telephone Company was founded in 1899 by Cleyson L Brown, to deploy the first telephone service to the rural area around Abilene, Kansas. The Browns installed their first long-distance circuit in 1900 and became an alternative to the Bell Telephone Company, the most popular telephone service at the time. In 1911, C. L. Brown consolidated the Brown Telephone Company with three other independents to form the United Telephone Company. C. L. Brown formed United Telephone and Electric (UT&E) in 1925. In 1939, at the end of the Great Depression, UT&E reorganized to form United Utilities. In 1972, United Utilities changed its name to United Telecommunications.
In 1980, United Telecommunications began working on a 23,000 mile fiber optic network for long-distance calls. In 1989, this long-distance business became profitable for the company for the first time.
Southern Pacific Communications and introduction of Sprint
Sprint also traces its roots back to the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPR), which was founded in the 1860s as a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Company (SPC). The company operated thousands of miles of track as well as telegraph wire that ran along those tracks. In the early 1970s, the company began looking for ways to use its existing communications lines for long-distance calling. This division of the business was named the Southern Pacific Communications Company. By the mid 1970s, SPC was beginning to take business away from AT&T, which held a monopoly at the time. A number of lawsuits between SPC and AT&T took place throughout the 1970s; the majority were decided in favor of increased competition. Prior attempts at offering long-distance voice services had not been approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), although a fax service (called SpeedFAX) was permitted.
In the mid-1970s, SPC held a contest to select a new name for the company. The winning entry was “SPRINT”, an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony.
Consolidation and renaming to Sprint Corporation
In 1982, it was announced that GTE Corp. had reached an agreement to buy SPC’s long-distance telephone operation, including Sprint. The deal was later finalized in 1983. In 1986, GTE Sprint merged with the United Telecommunications Inc. property, US Telecom. The joint venture was to be co-owned by GTE and United Telecom named US Sprint Communications. The new entity also included communications firm GTE Telenet, and United Telecom Data communications Co., (formerly known as Uninet). In 1988, GTE sold more of Sprint to United Telecom, giving United operational control of the company. United Telecom announced it would complete its acquisition of US Sprint on April 18, 1990.
United Telecom officially changed its name to Sprint Corporation in 1987 to capitalize on its brand recognition.
Sprint Analog Cellular
In March 1993, Sprint merged with Chicago’s Central Telephone (Centel). Centel remained in the Chicago area and was renamed Sprint Cellular Co. In 1994, Sprint spun off their existing cellular operations as 360 Communications to comply with an FCC regulatory mandate. In 1998, 360 Communications was acquired by Alltel, which was in turn acquired by Verizon in 2009.
Sprint Spectrum and Sprint PCS
In 1995, Sprint entered into a partnership with America Personal Communications to create a digital wireless network. In November 1995, the company began to offer wireless service under the Sprint Spectrum brand in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. This was the first commercial PCS network in the United States. Although Sprint PCS service was CDMA (later 4G LTE), the original Washington-area network used GSM. Eventually, Sprint launched its new nationwide CDMA network in 1999 sold the decommissioned GSM infrastructure to Omnipoint (later VoiceStream and now T-Mobile).
Merger of Sprint and Nextel
On December 15, 2004, Sprint Corporation and Nextel Communications announced they would merge to form Sprint Nextel. At the time of the merger announcement, Sprint and Nextel were the third and fifth leading providers in the U.S. mobile phone industry, respectively. Sprint Nextel was formed on August 13, 2005, when the deal was completed. The integration process was difficult due to disparate network technologies. Sprint was using 3G CDMA and Nextel was using iDEN.
Spin Off of Landline to Embarq
The merger with Nextel was a financial disaster. They were losing a lot of money with the merger because of the incompatible technologies. To help keep the newly formed company finically afloat, in 2006, Sprint spun off its local telephone operations, including the former United Telephone companies and Centel, as Embarq. Embarq itself was short lived as it was bought out by CenturyTel to become CenturyLink. CenturyLink became Lumen Technologies in September 2020.
Sprint Long Distance
Sprint Long Distance, as you see above, was originally by Southern Pacific Railroad that was later sold to GTE and United Telephone as a joint venture, and later United bought out GTE’s portion. United then renamed the company Sprint.
Since they were able to make a long distance company from scratch, they did it using then modern Northern Telecom (Nortel) DMS-250 tandem switches. The network was 100% digital fiber optic by the late 80s, which was impressive in its day. Of course MCI and AT&T were still mostly analog by that time, though digital was coming. By the early 90s, both MCI and AT&T had caught up to Sprint with a mostly digital network. But in the 80s, the infamous “pin drop” commercials were the selling point for Sprint for those who either were able to choose it as their long distance carrier, or were able to use “Feature Group A” methods by calling a local 7 digit number, then a PIN, then the destination phone number. Using the local number was common until the early 90s when Equal Access had pretty much taken a foothold as switches were being converted to digital.
Here are some examples of the Pin Drop commercials. By the 90s they concentrated on being the 10 cents/minute phone company. Actress Candace Bergen did several of these.
Here’s a one-hour long history of Sprint
As stated above, Sprint no longer exists as a separate entity. The landline side went to CenturyLink (now Lumen) and the wireless side went to the T-Mobile. But what happened to the Long Distance side? I’ll get to that in a minute.
So where did things go wrong? Technology is always changing and if you go the wrong way, you’ll lose. And that’s basically what happened. They took a number of missteps and they couldn’t get back on track from these.
The worst one was when Sprint bought out Nextel. Sprint at the time was using CDMA and Nextel was using iDEN. So these were totally incompatible systems. Plus, the spectrum was the problem as well since it was shared with public service (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Nextel was trying to skirt a rule with the public service spectrum and in the end it just didn’t work out. It caused too much interference and they were going to have to move anyhow. And on top of that, iDEN never really took off. Only a handful of carriers ever used it, and only in the United States. So when Sprint bought Nextel, they had to basically convert all of those customers over to CDMA and shut down iDEN. That cost many millions of dollars that they never got back. The “savings” with the merger was never realized.
Like most telephone companies they went into the cellular (wireless) realm. They did analog first, then first-generation GSM (Sprint Spectrum), then CDMA digital (Sprint PCS). But they zigged while they should have zagged. The rest of the industry went from various forms of 3G to a consolidated 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution). Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile and almost all smaller carriers went 4G, while Sprint tried to go with Wi-Max. That was also a costly mistake. Go against everyone else, pay the price.
Finally, the long distance market pretty much dried up. With the advent of Voice over IP and with “free” long distance with wireless platforms (Sprint included), landlines, along with landline long distance, pretty much disappeared for the average home consumer. Those “pin drop” commercials that touted digital quality and 10 cents/minute were pretty much forgotten by the 2010s. Long distance was pretty much moot by 2010, and in 2017 Sprint decided to get out of the long distance market. In fact, they shut down their long distance network as we knew it in June 2017. So more Candance selling Sprint, because what we knew of Sprint is now gone. No more local, long distance or wireless. Good bye, Sprint! It was nice to have known you!