Sprint Nextel Corp. yesterday launched a new music-download service for its wireless phones, a move consistent with Sprint's broader evolution as a partner in the media and entertainment business.

The company, which has its corporate headquarters in Reston, said it is selling two new models of phones that will allow users to purchase songs over the air for $2.50 each through the Sprint Music Store, a virtual shop with 250,000 tunes. Sprint's service transfers music directly to the phone as well as to a computer, whereas Cingular Wireless's recently launched Motorola/iTunes "Rokr" phone has to link to a computer to download songs.

The investment in music and entertainment dovetails with Sprint's $1 billion upgrade for a high-speed data network, which, in addition to the new music service, will carry sports, television and satellite-radio programming, as well as basic services such as e-mail, photos and messages.

The service, called Sprint Power Vision, sells for $15 to $25 a month on top of basic phone service. The phones, without current $50 rebates, cost $379 to $399.

"Among the U.S. carriers, Sprint has been the most aggressive in trying to become a media and entertainment player, and they're leading the pack," said Mark Donovan, senior research analyst with M:Metrics Inc. Sprint, for example, was the first carrier to launch wireless television service two years ago. But those services face challenges, Donovan said, most notably finding a price cheap enough for mainstream consumers and providing a big enough library to draw consumers from more established online music stores, such as iTunes and Yahoo Music.

Data show that greater percentages of people are using their phones for entertainment and multimedia. Nearly a third of cell phone subscribers send text messages, and 11 percent use their phones to browse the Web, according to M:Metrics. In September, 2.14 million cell phone users either downloaded or viewed streaming video over their phones.

"It's not meant to be a substitute for your 30-inch TV or a substitute for your iPod," but it's a device that can give consumers access to some of those same services almost anywhere, said Len J. Lauer, chief operating officer for Sprint, in an interview.

Verizon Wireless launched its high-speed service in 2003 and has expanded it nationally by marketing primarily to business users. Lauer said that while Sprint follows in its rival's footsteps, it is trying to offer an easier-to-use version of the service and pairing the high-speed connection with entertainment aimed at a broader audience of users.

To that end, Sprint recently partnered with the National Football League to offer original programming, with Fox News for news content and with Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. for streaming radio.

For the past year, the company also has been in discussions with a consortium of cable providers including Comcast Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Cox Communications Inc. to sell Sprint's wireless services bundled with cable television packages. Lauer declined to comment on the specifics of those discussions but said yesterday that a partnership with cable would allow Sprint to offer more content, as well as help cable companies expand their reach to customers.

"We have been fairly open to helping cable companies to have access to the third screen," Lauer said of the cell phone. "And Sprint needs access to broadband in the home."