3GSM - Omnifone reveals mobile music download service

A UK company hopes to disrupt Apple by launching a music download platform that doesn't require customers to use a credit card and charges weekly

Omnifone wants to put a new face on mobile phone music downloads with its MusicStation service.

Built around a software client that runs on a wide range of phones, MusicStation links to a subscription-based online music store and allows users to build and share playlists, follow news about their favorite bands -- and play and download music on their mobile for a fixed weekly fee, said CEO Rob Lewis.

The MusicStation application lets subscribers download music over the air using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or 3G (third-generation) mobile networks. The software runs on phones with Symbian's Symbian OS or other phones that can run Java applets.

Omnifone, based in London, hopes to challenge Apple's forthcoming iPhone, offering users a similarly easy-to-use music service from around three-quarters of phones currently sold, but giving network operators a slice of the revenue, Lewis said. The MusicStation platform charges music directly to the customer's phone bill, and doesn't require customers to use a credit card.

The company has reached agreements with 23 mobile network operators to use its music download platform to sell music from major record labels, including Universal Music Group. It has also partnered with Musiwave, a mobile music services provider that's part of Openwave Systems, to distribute the MusicStation system.

Scandinavian operator Telenor and South African network Vodacom are scheduled to launch MusicStation first, by June. Omnifone will name four more customers in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region by June, it said at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona on Monday.

Omnifone said consumers don't need a computer or broadband Internet connection to use MusicStation, although downloaded music can also be transferred to a user's computer with a premium subscription.

MusicStation is priced as a weekly subscription; in the U.K., the price will be £1.99 per week (US$3.87) or Euro 2.99 (US$3.89) throughout Europe. The premium service will be £2.99 in the U.K. and Euro 3.99 throughout Europe.

The platform supports digital rights management (DRM) technology, which limits how the music can be used, and tracks will be sold in the Enhanced Advanced Audio Coding format (eAAC+), Omnifone said. On 3G networks, they are encoded at 48K bps (bits per second), and on GPRS networks at 32K bps to shorten download times.

On phones with limited memory capacity, MusicStation monitors which tracks are played most often, and deletes little-used tracks to free up space. They can, however, be downloaded again later as long as the user remains a subscriber, Lewis said.

Peter Sayer, in Paris, contributed to this report.

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