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CELL-ING AMERICA BY THE POUND

Virgin Links With Sprint, Best Buy In Billion-Dollar Move Into American Mobile Market
Richard Branson's Virgin Group will partner with Sprint in a proposed $1 billion drive into the U.S. mobile market, an industry source told Reuters Sunday.

Sprint beat rivals including AT&T to supply the network for a Virgin-branded service based on Branson's mobile companies in Britain and Australia, the source said.

Branson hopes to break into the U.S. market, where only 40% of people have mobiles (compared with up to 70% in Europe), as he has succeeded in Britain and Australia. Branson has signed up more than 865,000 customers in Britain through a joint venture with Deutsche Telekom's One2One. In the U.S., Branson will be competing with six major nationwide mobile telecommunications brands.

According to the industry source, the 50-50 mobile venture hopes to stand out from the crowd by teaming up with U.S. consumer electronics retailer Best Buy, which will sell the service as Virgin's V-Shops in Britain have—selling mobile phones alongside CDs and videos.

"We're progressing with talks in the U.S. and we expect to be able to announce a deal soon," said a Virgin spokesman who would not confirm the deal.

Branson is investing an initial $13.82 million in the U.S. venture, the source said, which could eventually cost the partners $1 billion. The money was raised from a loan secured against Branson's 51% stake in Virgin Atlantic Airways.

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