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Verizon, Microsoft Team On Over-Air Music Downloads

Las Vegas — Verizon Wireless will become the second U.S. cellular carrier to offer an over-the-air music download service directly to phones, but in a departure from Sprint PCS’s service, Verizon said it opted for Microsoft audio codecs and digital rights management (DRM) technology to offer enhanced features and performance.

Starting Jan. 16, V CAST Music service will offer more than a half-million songs for downloading to phones and, in a few weeks, will expand the selection to more than 1 million from the Big Four music companies and independents, said chief merchandising officer John Stratton. Three handsets, all with dual speakers, will support the service at launch: LG’s VX 8100, Samsung’s SCH-a950 and a UTStarcom model, all with dual speakers. Current owners of the LG VX8100 and Samsung a950 will be able to get a firmware upgrade through a Verizon Wireless store to access the download service.

By the end of the month, Verizon will offer a new version of the existing LG 9800, now called “The V,” with slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Current owners will also be able to get a firmware upgrade.

For over-the-air downloads, Verizon chose what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the “super-efficient” Windows Media Audio Pro codec for quick downloads and greater file-storage capacity, given that the Pro codec is half the file size of traditional WMA files, he said. “Eventually, we’ll provide transcoding” of a PC’s protected WMA files to WMA Pro for transfer to phones, he added.

David Welch, Verizon’s new product development associate director, claimed WMA Pro offers higher frequency response than the AAC+ codec used by rival Sprint PCS and is “slightly more efficient.” Verizon chose the Microsoft DRM, Welch added, not only because it didn’t know when the Open Mobile Alliance’s OMA II DRM would be finalized, but also because it will enable protected WMA files on a PC to be transferred to V CAST Music phones. That is a major point of differentiation with the Sprint PCS service, whose phones play back AAC+ files downloaded over the air and unprotected MP3 files transferred from a PC, but not protected or unprotected WMA files transferred from a PC, Sprint confirmed.

Ballmer underscored the future of music-playing phones yesterday by claiming that “people over time will carry one portable device” that he said will be the cellphone.

For its service, Verizon charges 99 cents per PC download and $1.99 for a dual download: WMA to a PC and WMA Pro to the phone. V CAST Music phones do not, however, play WMA subscription downloads transferred from a PC.

All phones can store music in removable memory cards, either miniSD for the LG phones or microSD (Trans Flash) for the Samsung models. With announcements here by San Disk, the music-storage capacities of the phones have grown dramatically. SanDisk unveiled the industry’s first 1GB microSD, enough to store up to 32 hours of WMA Pro music. It retails for a suggested $119.99. SanDisk also announced a new 2GB miniSD card at a suggested $199.99. The San Disk cards will be available in Verizon Wireless stores in February.

All V CAST Music phones feature Verizon’s CDMA 1x EV-DO wireless-data technology. To initiate an over-air download, users must be in an EV-DO market, but they can continue a download wwhile roaming into a CDMA 1x cell site.