Verizon mulls heavily-discounted BlackBerry Storm

By Scott Moritz

Free. That’s Vodafone’s (VOD) recently-unveiled price for the hotly-anticipated touchscreen BlackBerry Storm from Research in Motion (RIMM) in the United Kingdom.

In a sign of just how desperate phone companies are to lock customers in to lengthy contracts, Verizon’s (VZ) wireless partner is willing to subsidize the Storm — which sells for about $500 without a calling plan — in order to lure subscribers in England.

Though a final decision has yet to be made, Verizon is considering the same strategy for the Storm’s U.S. debut next month, according to an industry source familiar with the discussions. Another person close to the company says it’s unlikely the Storm will be free.

Verizon declined to comment on its pricing plan for the Storm.

The fact that Verizon is even considering a free phone highlights the competitive pressure created when AT&T (T) started selling a heavily-subsidized Apple (AAPL) iPhone for $199.

Most industry analysts expect the Storm, which has received favorable reviews, to be priced at or below the iPhone.

While Verizon would like to use its exclusive Storm deal to gain an edge in the smartphone market, selling it for free “would be breaking new ground for Verizon,” said Roger Entner, an analyst with Nielsen IAG’s . “It’s likely that they will put it at $150 and maybe $99 if they want to ship massive volumes during the holiday.” At either price, the Storm would be heavily discounted.

Verizon has come up short on blockbuster phones over the past year and a half as the iPhone has become the icon of the smartphone market. AT&T has been a driving force in the U.S. wireless market thanks to the iPhone, which pulls in an average $95 per month. But that drive has also come at a steep price to Ma Bell, which forks over $375 upfront for every iPhone sold. That cost the company $900 million in the third quarter.

For RIM, the Storm represents its biggest step yet into the consumer market as it tries to derail the success of the iPhone. One major challenge is to get devotees of BlackBerry’s physical keyboard to embrace the clickable touchscreen keypad on the Storm. The iPhone’s onscreen keyboard has presented some difficulties for many typists.

So far, Verizon hasn’t had much success with its touchscreen devices. But the Storm, if it’s a hit, could finally establish Verizon as a player in the red-hot touchscreen market. What’s more, it could not only entice new customers, but also convert old lower-paying customers to more expensive contracts. Each Storm subscriber will have to sign up for a BlackBerry e-mail and calling plan, which currently starts at $80 a month.

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