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Hip-hop rings put 'bling' in cell phones

Sprint, others hope to hear more ka-ching with "bling tones," cellular ring tones created by hip-hop artists.

A pair of U.S. cell phone service providers want to put some "bling bling" into your cell phone--and simultaneously inject some life into the disappointing U.S. ring tone market.

First coined in the late 1990s, the phrase bling bling is hip-hop lingo to describe showy style. Now come "bling tones," or cell phone ring tones created by hip-hop artists, which carriers say have the same level of panache.

On Tuesday, Sprint Communications said it has begun selling clips of songs for cell phones from artists such as Rockwilder, Souldiggaz and Jay Dee. The ring tones cost $2.50 each. Lagardere Active North America, a subsidiary of European mobile content provider Lagardere SCA, is supplying the ring tones to Sprint.

In June, U.S. provider Virgin Mobile began selling what it's calling "First Dibs," a partnership with Universal Music Group to sell tones from several hip-hop artists.

The efforts are the latest attempt to jump-start disappointing ring tone sales in the United States. Just $75 million worth of ring tones were sold in 2003, a pittance, when compared with the approximately $3 billion in global ring tone sales that year.

Sales of ring tones are expected to continue to disappoint this year as well. High-tech market research firm In-Stat/MDR estimated that ring tone sales in the United States will reach just $146 million in 2004.

While consumers consider ring tones to be whimsical features, they're serious business for carriers. They consider the adoption of ring tones to go hand in hand with better sales of much more complex and expensive wireless data services including streaming video, mobile music and wireless broadband, according to Clint Wheelock, In-Stat/MDR's director of wireless research.

"Ring tone and mobile-music users are early adopters, with high-value wireless spending and usage habits," he said. "Across the board, these subscribers are more likely to own handsets with cutting-edge features and functionality."