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Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Text-messaging struggles to get off the phone pad in US


Synge Maher shows a text message from her boyfriend in Virginia on her cellphone during her lunch break in New York last Thursday. US cellphone carriers have been working hard to get their customers turned on to text-messaging.


It's worked in Europe and Asia -- why not the US?

Cellphone text messaging has exploded in popularity in the last few years overseas. Lovers use it to flirt, children to bully, sports fans to get scores. Employers have fired workers by text message, while for the pope it's the delivery choice for a daily thought.

In fact, the short messaging service, or SMS, generated US$15 billion in revenue in western Europe last year, according to the analysts at Strand Consult of Denmark.

Hungry for new revenue sources in a harshly competitive market, US cellphone carriers have also been working hard to get their customers to type text with their phone keypads. One set of TV ads geared at a prized demographic shows teens exchanging tart messages while standing right next to each other.

Getting Americans interested has been an uphill struggle. Yet there are signs of a warming.

US phones sent 1 billion text messages in December, up sharply from 253 million a year earlier, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

This spring, text messaging was boosted by a tie-in with the massively popular American Idol TV show. Sponsor AT&T Wireless allowed subscribers to message their votes, tallying up more than a million in the first 10 weeks of the competition.

"We're really trying to make SMS a real business," says AT&T Wireless spokesman Jeremy Pemble.

Still, the first time Synge Maher sends messages to people in the US, it's often the first time they've ever received one.

The 27-year-old New Yorker exchanges sweet nothings like "TOTALLY MAD 4 U" with her boyfriend -- a convenient and cheap way to keep in touch, she says.

She started "texting" after seeing, on a visit to London, how almost everyone in their 20s and 30s was doing it.

"They think it's so cool," she said.

She finds messaging practical when she doesn't have the time to talk or doesn't want to raise her voice, as in the theater.

Maher used to have problems sending messages to friends who use other cellphone carriers, demonstrating one of the industry's failures.

It has only been possible for about a year to send text messages between US carriers. Before that, communication was largely restricted to other phones on the same carrier.

The carriers blamed differing technologies for the barrier. Others have suggested that they each tried to corner the market by "locking in" those who wanted to message each other.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was quickly embracing the technology, sending more than 1 billion text messages a day last year, according to analysts at Telecom Trends International and French network operator Netsize.

In Europe, text message voting is a must for any reality TV show. In Norway, a country of 4.3 million people, an equivalent of American Idol received more than 3.3 million SMS votes this spring, according to Strand Consult of Denmark.

Of course, Europeans can vote for TV shows no matter what their carrier. AT&T Wireless only allowed their own subscribers to vote by text message, but other shows, like Nashville Star on USA Network, are opening up voting to multiple carriers.

Nashville Star used a third-party marketing firm to set up multi-carrier voting, but that could become unnecessary as carriers overcome their natural reluctance to cooperate.

Verizon Wireless has invited other carriers to adopt a set of short codes that stand for each TV network.

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