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Essentially puzzling: Rubin's hype-phone ties up with… Sprint?

Phone with no customers latches onto least popular major carrier

The much-anticipated Essential Phone has been inked into a deal with Sprint to be the sole endorsed carrier for the handset.

The agreement means Sprint will be the only carrier to sell the Essential handset in its branded stores and offer discounted pricing. People using other carriers can still get an Essential phone, but will have to pay the full $699 price for an unlocked model.

Best Buy will also be selling the Sprint-linked Essential phones in its online and brick-and-mortar stores.

So far, Sprint and Essential have not said just what the discount will be for buying the handset with a Sprint contract, or when the deal will go into effect. It will, however, need to be low enough to entice customers to dump their old carriers in most cases.

Currently, Sprint is a fading fourth in US market share, as its 14.1 per cent share of the market trails T‑Mobile US (17.4 per cent), AT&T (32 per cent) and Verizon (35 per cent).

The move is a bit of a puzzler for Andy Rubin's new hardware company Essential Products, which ideally would go with a much larger carrier to get its first models into the hands of as many consumers as possible. Essential rode the wave of hype generated by Rubin, the firm's founder, to make a closely watched unveiling of the first handset model last month.

While it has less than half the market share of current leaders Verizon and AT&T, Sprint is widely believed to be in the midst of negotiations for a possible merger with T‑Mobile US. Such a deal would make the combined Sprint/T‑Mobile base the third major player in the US market, as the combined companies would claim more than 30 per cent of all US subscribers.

However, that sort of merger would likely take years to be approved and completed. In the meantime, Essential still finds itself competing with handset makers that not only have more resources, but are also able to partner up with larger mobile carriers and networks. This may be too much for an upstart vendor – even one with Andy Rubin's star power – to overcome in establishing a foothold for itself in the mobile space. ®

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