AT&T is making Napster's entire music catalog of more than 5 million songs available for wireless download starting early next month.
The service, which AT&T is unveiling Monday, will expand the company's over-the-air download offerings beyond the independent music it offered through eMusic.com and allow it to compete with offerings from rivals Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel.
San Antonio-based AT&T has not yet announced which devices will work with the new music service.
The new service will not work with Apple's iPhone, which is tied to Apple's iTunes service and allows users to load music only from their computers or when they are connected to a Wi-Fi network, not through a cellular signal.
"Where we're really focused is getting a broad set of music offerings for consumers," said Robert Hyatt, executive director of premium content for AT&T.
Songs will cost $1.99 each, or $7.49 for five per month. Users who download a song directly to their phones will automatically get an e-mail allowing them to put a second copy on their computers. Customers who have songs through Napster already will be able to transfer them to their phones as well, Hyatt said.
The new arrangement with the largest U.S. wireless phone carrier opens a huge U.S. customer base to Napster .
It has smaller deals in the U.S. and overseas, including one with Japan's NTT DoCoMo. But Napster President Brad Duea said the new service allows it to compete more directly with iTunes. "It creates a great base for us," Duea said.
AT&T plans to make more music content available exclusively for mobile download through deals reached directly with artists.
To launch the service, it will offer content from Grammy-winning band matchbox twenty's new album.
The group's frontman, Rob Thomas, said mobile downloading is inevitable as users begin to treat their cell phones like the entertainment hubs their computers are. "It's easy to see where the trail is headed," he said. "This is going to be the way that people are going to get all their media."
He said relationships with wireless carriers like AT&T also potentially shift the way the music business is handled, noting that artists may now be able to find alternative ways to produce, distribute and publicize their work.
"When you look at the antiquated model that the record company is, it's becoming more and more obsolete," Thomas said.
To date, only a tiny portion of mobile users have taken advantage of over-the-air download capability, but some of the development has been stymied by network speeds, the limited catalog of music available and disputes over rights management.
Those issues are being addressed as companies roll out new offerings and upgrade networks, said Ross Rubin, an analyst for market researcher The NPD Group. With the upgrades, "they can compete better with the PC experience," he said.