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Sprint challenges iPhone with 99 cent over-the-air music downloads

Apple Inc. may find it hard to ignore a new dual-strategy mobile phone initiative from Sprint Nextel that promises over-the-air music downloads to a new Samsung phone for 99 cents a piece.

The nation's third largest wireless carrier said Monday it plans to begin offering customers a new phone from Samsung with a revolutionary form factor that optimizes music capabilities with the look of a phone on one side and an MP3 player on the other.

Dubbed "UpStage," the device will be available from Sprint stores beginning in early April for $149 with a two-year service agreement. It will offer easy access to Sprint's exclusive multimedia content, including Sprint Music Store with quick over-the-air music downloads.

The phone will also feature a 1.3MP camera and camcorder, MicroSD card slot for up to 2GB of external memory, an easy-to-access keyguard switch to prevent accidental dialing, and Wireless Backup to quickly restore contact information if your phone is lost or stolen.

Each UpStage from Samsung will come standard with a 64MB MicroSD memory card and an extended battery wallet that increases talk time up to 6.3 hours or 16 hours of music listening, Sprint said. Dual battery gauges will show remaining battery life in the extended battery wallet and the internal battery.

At the same time that Sprint rolls out UpStage, it will also begin offering customers powerful new pricing options for downloadable music tracks. The Reston, Va.-based firm said in early April the Sprint Music Store will offer songs at $ 0.99, which it claims is the lowest rate available for over-the-air song downloads purchased in the United States.

"This price applies to every song in the Sprint Music Store's library of more than 1.5 million songs," Sprint said in a press release.

The new per-song rate will be available to Sprint customers with any Sprint Power Vision data plan, and Sprint says it plans to offer two new plans with a particular emphasis on music.

A new Power Vision Access Pack will be available for $15 and include 10 commercial-free radio channels from Sprint Radio, exclusive video programming, and 99 cent song downloads. For $5 more per month, a Vision Music Pack will add another 40 channels of commercial-free radio channels and a a channel from Sprint TV that features music videos.

Spring/Samsung UpStage

Samsung's UpStage mobile music phone for Sprint Nextel network.

Both data plans will be available to Sprint customers in early April and include unlimited data usage, Sprint said. The plans will also include unlimited use of several other non-music applications such as web browsing, Picture Mail and mobile email.

While Samsung's UpStage handset pales in comparison Apple's iPhone on a functionality basis, Sprint's move to offer over-the-air music downloads to the device for 99 cents may present a significant challenge to the iPod maker.

Apple, whose iPhone is not expected until June, has not said if users will be able to download music tracks direcly to the device over ATT's wireless network.