Sprint Gets Real with Mobile Radio

The wireless carrier announced a new pact with RealNetworks that will bring more music and podcasts to its mobile phones, and launched its first phone running Microsoft's new Windows Mobile OS.

Sprint and RealNetworks announced a deal on Monday that will bring the digital media software specialists Rhapsody Radio service to the wireless carriers customers.

Under the pact, the terms of which were not released, customers of Sprint Nextel Corp.s PCS Vision Multimedia Service can pay an additional $6.95 per month to access the Real mobile music package.

The service from RealNetworks Inc., based in Seattle, has never before been offered for mobile phones and will work on seven multimedia-ready handsets already on the market from LG Electronics Inc., Sanyo Electric Co. and Samsung Electronics Co.

/zimages/1/28571.gifDo GSM operators threaten mobile music? Click here to read more.

For the last two years, Sprint and Real have been partnering to market mobile video services to wireless customers via the software makers Real – rTV offering.

The new radio service marks the latest in a string of musical deals struck by Sprint, Reston, Va., which will now offer four different streaming audio stations, and has similar service agreements with Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., MSpot Inc. and Music Choice.

In addition to a number of different music format channels, through which Real claims to offer several thousand individual tracks, the service will also offer related information, including videos and reviews, as well as "Beats N Breaks," a channel that will supply background tracks for people who engage in the spontaneous form of rap music known as "freestyling."

The offering will also include several forms of podcasts, as well as the programming aired on several California radio stations, including an affiliate of National Public Radio.

Sprint executives said the company is focused on giving its customers as many choices for music as it can provide.

"We know that our customers are increasingly using our data and music services and this is just another way to give people access to even more content wherever they want it," said Nancy Beaton, director of music and personalization at the wireless carrier.

Officials from Real, which currently claims some 1.15 million PC-based subscribers for its digital music services, said the most significant advantage of the Sprint-Rhapsody package will be that it offers consumers the ability to listen to music on their existing handsets.

By comparison, Apple Computer Inc.s iTunes service only works on one model of a phone made by Motorola Inc.

Kevin Nakao, general manger of mobile for Real, said that the Rhapsody service will also trump iTunes in that it wont require downloads from other computers.

"You need to make it really easy for customers to get to your services, and entertainment junkies, the type of people using these services, dont want to transfer files or wait for downloads, they just want to turn it on and hear music," Nakao said.

"Carriers want to offer a common customer experience; they dont want to force people to upgrade their devices for every new service."

Despite Reals contention, however, Apples iTunes is still considered the runaway market leader in digital music downloads, and is estimated by some industry watchers to have close to 2 million customers in the U.S. alone.

At least one market watcher said that the Sprint-Real offering could appeal to significant numbers of wireless device owners.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about Sprints new Windows Mobile 5.0 pocket PC phone.

Michael Gartenberg, analyst with New York-based Jupiter Research, said that such streaming audio services make more sense than "trying to turn a phone into an iPod."

"You shouldnt need to spend $200 to $500 on a phone just to listen to music, and the (wireless) networks have reached a point where they can truly support and deliver this sort of service reliably," Gartenberg said.

"Most consumers dont want to download music onto their phone," he added.

Gartenberg said he expects to see a number of similar deals in the wireless space, as content providers such as Real, Napster Inc. and Yahoo Music tailor their audio services to work on mobile handsets.

"Carriers are looking for ways to deliver these types of services. They dont want to just be the bit pipe," he said. "This is a good example of a new service that doesnt require the consumer to upgrade."

In addition to the new music service, Sprint on Monday introduced the PCS Vision Smart Device, its first combined PDA and phone handset running on Microsoft Corp.s new Windows Mobile 5.0 software.

Built by UTStarcom Personal Communications Inc. of Alameda, Calif., the device offers updated versions of Microsoft Office applications including Outlook Mobile, and Microsofts new PowerPoint Mobile offering.

The handset, which will retail for $629.99, also features Bluetooth and WiFi wireless connectivity, as well as Web access, and a digital camera.

In other news, Sprint and Samsung Telecommunications America announced a new partnership to engage in joint testing of the IEEE 802.16e wireless broadband standard.

Under the collaboration, the companies said they would research prototype terminals and network equipment to help model next-generation wireless network infrastructure requirements.