Andy Rubin's Essential phone will be a Sprint 'exclusive' -- but you can use it on other carriers if you want

Andy Rubin Essential PhoneBrian Ach/GettyAndy Rubin and the Essential Phone.

Essential, the new tech startup from Android co-creator Andy Rubin, announced on Monday that Sprint will be the exclusive carrier partner for its upcoming smartphone, the PH-1, in the US.

USA Today first reported the partnership. Sprint later confirmed the news.

This means that, if you’re the type that only buys your phones through a carrier’s retail channels, you’ll have to go through Sprint to get the new Android device.

Sprint hasn’t specified how much the Essential PH-1 will cost through its site and stores, and only reaffirmed that the device is “expected to launch later this summer.” It’s also not clear if the partnership is permanent, or meant for the phone’s launch.

Essential has previously confirmed that the device will be sold for $US699 unlocked, pitting it directly against other high-end phones like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S8.

Sprint firmly trails the other three major carriers in the US — Verizon, AT&T, and the surging T-Mobile — in terms of total subscribers, so Essential’s decision to side with the carrier seems questionable on the surface. Although sales of unlocked phones — that is, those that aren’t tied to one specific carrier — are on the rise, the majority of phone buyers in the US still buy their phones through carriers.

According to USA Today, Essential president Niccolo de Masi characterised Sprint as “the network of the future.” While Sprint does have network improvements in the works, its performance has generally lagged behind the likes of T-Mobile and Verizon for several years now. That said, rumours of a potential T-Mobile-Sprint merger have picked up as of late.

Beyond that, de Masi reportedly cited Rubin’s relationship with Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Japanese corporation SoftBank, which owns most of Sprint. USA Today says Rubin is an advisor to SoftBank’s Vision Fund, though it’s worth noting that SoftBank backed out of a large investment in Essential earlier this year.

Sprint also promises to give some sort of marketing push to the phone, but given its relatively limited reach, it remains to be seen how effective that may be.

What also remains to be seen is how much pre-loaded software Sprint will stack onto the device. Rubin is selling the Essential PH-1 in part around the idea of a “cleaner” version of Android, but carriers are not known for their restraint in this regard (iPhone aside). Sprint did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

All that said, just because Sprint is taking the lead here doesn’t mean you have to use its network. If you prefer Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile, you can still buy the PH-1 unlocked through Essential’s website. A look through the phone’s spec sheet shows that Essential supports the network bands for all of those carriers, so if you’re ok paying the $US699 upfront, you’ll be good to bring it wherever you please.

You’ll have to be someone that goes out of their way to do that, though. A big chunk of the PH-1’s success now depends on whether there’s enough people outside of that group are willing to pay for the fourth-place carrier.

As a reminder, the PH-1 was unveiled late last month. It comes with high-powered specs, a titanium and ceramic design, a display with minimal bezels, and a connector for special proprietary accessories.

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