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Pay to play with AT&T

AT&T Wireless asks its wireless phone subscribers to pay a little extra each month to access games and messaging products not on its usual menu of offerings.

AT&T Wireless on Tuesday offered its wireless phone subscribers a way to pay a little extra each month, an average of $2, to access games and messaging products not on its usual menu of offerings.

The effort is a new one for the United States, where carriers generally sell the wireless Web in a giant package, or what others call a "walled garden." Subscribers get a handpicked number of games and other features to use in exchange for a fixed monthly fee.

The idea of offering up alternative content for an extra few dollars began in the United States last year with Cingular, which offers subscribers a way to download different ring tones at 99 cents each.

But AT&T on Tuesday started an even broader effort, offering a way for its subscribers to get a subscription to services from Finnish mobile game maker Sonera Zed, which produces games like "Cubex," in which a character has to navigate through office cubicles to a bathroom.

There are a total of 56 other items a consumer gets for $2 a month, including a way to join a cell phone instant messaging group.

Sonera Zed will also be sending customers the bill. An AT&T spokesman said AT&T is simply offering access to the Sonera Zed package of new wireless items to its customers.

Analysts will be watching the efforts closely. European cell phone users have been paying extra for special content on their wireless devices for years. Sonera Zed, which is providing the games for AT&T Wireless, is one of the leading companies in this field. It estimates its games can be played on 80 million cell phones.

But the United States is a different cell phone animal altogether, where subscribers still grapple with using the wireless Web, and the idea of paying extra to access content might go dead like a cell phone battery.

Jupiter Research wireless analyst Joe Laszlo said the risk for Sonera Zed and AT&T is even greater because it is asking consumers to pay extra to play games, while there are dozens of games they can play on the wireless Web free of charge.

For example, one of the most popular wireless games is Gladiator, available from JamDat Mobile, which in May got a $12 million cash infusion from Sun Microsystems. The stick figure role-playing game lets players assume characters who battle each other in the Roman Coliseum.

Nearly every carrier is beefing up its collection of interactive, multiple-player games for wireless subscribers. U.S.-based wireless game maker Unplugged Games completed a rare hat trick of carriers in May, announcing that it signed deals to offer its collection of games to customers of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. These are also offered at no extra cost.

"It's sort of a tall order justifying why people would pay when there is so much free content," Laszlo said. "But if Zed can stake out that pay for content niche, other carriers might follow suit."

Paul Hughes, who is heading up the AT&T effort for Sonera Zed, acknowledges there is risk but thinks it will be worth it.

"This market and this model will continue to improve," he said.