Originally created 06/30/03

Wireless carriers try to hook Americans on texting



NEW YORK -- It's worked in Europe and Asia - why not here?

Cell phone 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 $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, U.S. cell phone 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.

U.S. 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 United States, 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 says. 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 cell phone carriers, demonstrating one of the industry's failures.

It has only been possible for about a year to send text messages between U.S. 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.

Western European media companies and TV broadcasters pulled in $82 million from SMS voting in 2002, Strand Consult says. U.S. media companies have taken note. They also have a pent-up desire to sell data services - news, sports scores and the like - to wireless subscribers.

Analyst Charles Golvin at Forrester Research says a big problem for U.S. carriers is that e-mail and instant messaging have become quite entrenched. Tapping out messages on a phone's keypad seems clumsy by comparison.

"A lot of people see it as a somewhat dumbed-down version of instant messaging," he says.

Some carriers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, are trying to piggyback on the popularity of AOL Instant Messenger by allowing it to exchange messages with their cell phones.

Another obstacle to the adoption of text messaging is that as U.S. operators are starting to promote the service, they are also charging more for it. By contrast, SMS caught on in Europe because it was cheap.

Voice calls are much more expensive in Europe than in the United States, and plans often don't include free minutes, so text messages at 20 cents each are an attractive option.

In the United States, most people have more airtime minutes than they use each month, so making another voice call often costs nothing.

Some U.S. carriers formerly included a number of free text messages each month, but that has generally disappeared.

T-Mobile USA, for instance, dropped plans this past spring that included 500 free text messages a month. While it offers 50 free incoming messages, it costs $2.99 a month to send up to 500 outgoing messages.

Golvin says the biggest obstacle is that Americans aren't used to using their phones for anything but talking.

"There's a big behavioral shift that needs to happen," he says. "Yes, I see it grow, but I don't think we'll see numbers on par with Europe. I don't think we'll see billions of messages on Valentine's Day."