Softbank, Japan's third-largest mobile carrier, and Apple have reached a basic agreement to develop mobile phones that can play songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes Music Store, according to local press reports.

Softbank however has since released a statement denying these claims. Apple declined to comment on the reports.

According to the original report the two companies reached the agreement after Softbank President Masayoshi Son met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, said the Nihon Keizai Shimbun in its Saturday morning edition. Softbank recently entered the wireless business when it acquired Vodafone Group's Japanese unit.

The first phones to come from the partnership are expected to be 3G (third-generation) models that play downloaded songs, the newspaper said. Like current iPod music players, these handsets will play music downloaded via a personal computer. However, a second range of handsets that can directly access the iTunes Music Store and download songs is also being planned, the report said.

The first phones from the partnership will appear next year, said a Kyodo News Service report on Saturday.

While Apple's iPod music players and its iTunes Music Store dominate the legal music download market in most countries, in Japan it and competing PC-based services are minor players. In 2005, about 96 per cent of the 268 million tracks purchased electronically were downloaded via mobile services, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan.

Last week NTT DoCoMo, Japan's top mobile network, said it would add playback support for songs downloaded from online music stores that use Microsoft's Windows Media 10 technology. Doing so will allow the phones to play tracks downloaded from PC-based services that compete with Apple's iTunes Music Store.

Motorola has already built several handsets that can connect with and playback music from iTunes, but none of them are available in Japan and none can directly access the iTunes Music Store.