Walt Mossberg

ESPN Cellphone Has Great Sports Content But Many Trade-Offs

When you think of U.S. wireless phone carriers, the name ESPN hardly leaps to mind alongside Verizon, Cingular, Sprint and T-Mobile. But this month, ESPN joined their ranks, sort of. It leapt into the cellphone business not merely with vastly increased sports content available from phones and a new phone customized for sports fans, but also with a whole new cellphone company.

The sports network isn’t actually building cell towers or licensing frequencies from the government, as traditional carriers do. Instead, it is launching a “virtual” cellphone carrier called Mobile ESPN. It’s leasing high-speed network capacity from Sprint and reselling that capacity as if it were a real carrier, complete with its own sports-oriented services, phones, pricing plans, billing and customer service.

ESPN Mobile's first phone, the Sanyo MVP

I’ve been testing the new ESPN Mobile service and its first phone, called the Sanyo MVP. In general, I liked the elaborate package of sports news and information that lies at the heart of the new venture, which can only be accessed via ESPN phones and the ESPN service — not through traditional carriers, even Sprint.

But I encountered some glitches and problems, including missing features. And to my amazement, I discovered the phone’s Web browser goes only to sites approved by ESPN. I can’t imagine anyone other than the most hard-core sports addict going through the hassle of switching phones and carriers to sign up with ESPN, especially since the new company’s prices seem to be on the high side.

Mobile ESPN is known in telephone-industry jargon as an MVNO — a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. A few companies, like Virgin, have created similar virtual carriers to extend their brands, and more are coming. One of the most promising, due to launch later this year, is Helio, a joint venture of the Internet company EarthLink and the big Korean cellphone carrier, SK Telecom, which aims to bring advanced Asian cellphone technology to the U.S.

ESPN has offered scores and other sports data through other carriers and on other phones. But the colorful, rich multimedia package of news, scores, statistics and videos available through Mobile ESPN is unlike anything I’ve seen on a phone. And it’s dead simple to use. Instead of wading through numerous menus and screens, as on other phones, you just press a dedicated key, labeled with the stylized “E” from the network’s logo, to enter sports-geek heaven.

The sports service is divided into numerous sections, including news, scores, videos, alerts, fantasy teams, ESPN columnists, and more. There’s a section for news about favorite players you designate, and you can also create sections containing news and stats for your favorite teams.

Navigating all this stuff is easy because of something called the Sidebar, a thin strip at the edge of the screen that acts as a sort of conveyor belt, rotating through the icons that launch each section.

ESPN’s Sanyo phone, the first of several models it plans to offer, costs $199. It’s a chunky black flip phone with bright red buttons and the red ESPN logo stenciled on it in three places. The main screen is a large, 2.1-inch display that’s bright and very sharp. A smaller color screen adorns the outside of the lid. The phone has a 1.3 megapixel camera with flash, a built-in digital-music player, and a slot for memory cards that holds a 16-megabyte card at purchase.

In my tests, the phone performed very well at core functions — making and receiving calls, sending and receiving text messages, and saving contact information. But when I went to the instant-messaging and email features, I was greeted by a screen that said “coming soon.”

Even worse, ESPN has crippled the phone’s Web browser by blocking access to some sites. When I tried to go to several sites, including those of competitors like Sports Illustrated, I got a screen that said ESPN only allows you to go to “reviewed” sites it believes “work well on your ESPN phone.” That’s an outrageous level of control, in my view. You can get around this iron fist by doing a Google search in the Web browser and then clicking on one of the links Google produces, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

ESPN concedes it allows users to access only those Web sites it has approved, but it says this is a temporary measure designed to protect its software from the “corruption” that it says can be introduced if users download programs from certain sites. The company says the restriction on visiting unapproved sites will be lifted later this year, though the phone will still prevent the download of unapproved software.

The Mobile ESPN service costs between $34.99 and $224.99 a month for a two-year contract, depending on how many minutes of talk time you choose to buy. It’s hard to compare cellphone plans, because they differ a lot on the details, but I suspect you could beat the ESPN rates by shopping around.

All plans include full use of the sports service, plus Internet access. The service runs on Sprint’s broadband-speed EVDO network.

Bottom line: The sports content on this phone is excellent, but for most people, it’s not worth the trade-offs in price, hassle and Web restrictions.


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