By Joachim Bamrud, Tue Apr 29 00:00:00 GMT 2003
MMS is poised to pick up where SMS left off, but operators are facing technical challenges related to both.
Two key mobile messaging events
recently took place on each side of the Atlantic Ocean. In the United
States, three major operators started offering inter-operability for
text messaging. Their offer, which comes a couple of months after
AT&T Wireless started offering the same, is seen as a major
breakthrough for text messaging in the United States. Until now, the
operators' subscribers could only message other subscribers of the
Meanwhile, Norwegian operator Telenor Mobil on
March 12 launched what it believes was the world's first Multimedia
Messaging Service (MMS), signaling the first of several MMS launches in
Europe this year.
The two events appear to further cement the
telecommunications gap between Europe and the United States. As European
carriers are busy preparing for MMS, their U.S. counterparts are now
trying to resolve any technical problems with basic SMS. As the first
MMS terminals are being shipped in Europe, typical mobile phones in the
United States still don't have SMS-capability.
"We're pretty much done with major technical
challenges on SMS," says Esben Tuman Johnsen, a spokesman for
Telenor Mobile, one of the pioneers of the service in Europe and one of
the most successful operators globally in terms of SMS revenues.
The operator has gone from handling 1.8 million text messages
in all of 1996 to today's level of 4 million per day. Now, Telenor
Mobil is more concerned about solving any initial chinks with
"Since we're probably the world's first to
have launched MMS, we can't rely on anyone else's
experience," Tuman Johnsen says. "Getting a large amount of
data to transfer smoothly and ideally on several different networks has
been a challenge."
One of the challenges has been to get
content providers to work within a new standard and no longer within the
SMS-limits of 160 text characters, he says. In fact, content providers
may face an even larger challenge as the first MMS devices - from Nokia
and Ericsson - feature different screen sizes, according to Tuman
On April 1, U.S.
carrier Sprint PCS launched a messaging solution that enables its
subscribers to send and receive text messages with other carriers.
MobileSpring and VeriSign subsidiary Illuminet provided the solution
Sprint could not provide any statistics on messaging
usage, but said that messaging is the leading data application on its
wireless web service.
"As Sprint launches 3G in mid-2002...
Sprint expects the popularity and amount of messaging to explode,"
says spokeswoman Jennifer R. Walsh.
MobileSpring also delivered
the inter-operability solution used by Cingular, which launched its
inter-operability service in March. The same month, a third carrier -
VoiceStream - also started offering inter-operability.
offers are not just mere technical breakthroughs, but may lead to a
dramatic increase in text messaging in the United States, experts
AT&T Wireless, which in November became the first to
offer inter-operability, saw traffic more than double after that.
"Since offering that capability, the number of text messages has
more than doubled and nearly 40 percent of our customers send messages
to other carriers' subscribers," says AT&T Wireless
spokesman Ritch Blasi.
InphoMatch Inc., which delivered the
inter-operability solution to AT&T and VoiceStream, reports that
AT&T now has more than 30 million messages a month going through the
inter-operability router. That comes on top of regular messages within
the AT&T network.
"It means almost everything to the
success of SMS [in the United States]," Donald Longueuil, a
wireless analyst at In-Stat/MDR, says about the inter-operability
breakthrough the past few months. "It cannot be stated
The lack of cross-carrier SMS inter-operability
has been the main challenge for the uptake and widespread adoption of
SMS in the United States, says Linda Barrabee, a senior analyst with the
However, inter-operability isn't the only
challenge for SMS usage. Only about 20 percent of mobile phones in the
United States are SMS-capable, according to Longueuil.
biggest technical challenge for the next year or so will continue to be
roaming and inter-carrier support," says David Berndt, director of
wireless/mobile technologies at Yankee Group. "While solutions have
been created to assist with the inter-operator messaging, quirks will
continue to pop up until the systems have been challenged over
Another major challenge is capacity, he says.
"Operators will need to monitor their systems closely to ensure
that they don't have a repeat of the problems AT&T Wireless had
in New York City after it introduced Digital One Rate," Berndt
warns. "It had more people signing up for service than it had
anticipated and the system availability degraded quickly. It took a
significant amount of time and investment in network capacity for
[AT&T] to regain ...residents'
Obstacles for SMS growth also include
non-technical challenges like pricing, user interface, consumers'
experience with traditional PC's and level of patience with the
often-more cumbersome experience of mobile phones, Longueuil
"Carriers must initially convince end-users to use
their mobile phones for more than just voice, " says Barrabee.
"Over the past year carriers have increased awareness of text
messaging, and with broader interoperability they are expected to step
up their efforts even more."
But, SMS in the United States
will also face competition from corporate e-mail and mobile Instant
Messaging, she warns. Although the latter could also help drive SMS
usage since some IM services go through SMS servers, she
within Europe is a relative straightforward matter, with consumers only
having to remember to have input their country code in the relevant
settings section beforehand (many operators ask all new subscribers to
do that when they first sign up for service).
differs strongly, though, depending on how much customers use SMS.
British and Scandinavian users, for example, are likely among those that
also use SMS roaming most, since they are used to receiving and sending
frequent text messages.
Rather than technical hurdles, it
appears that prices are the main challenges facing SMS roaming, analysts
"If you're a client of Mobistar in Belgium that
has to roam using D2's [GPRS] network in Germany, the price for
using 10MB of data suddenly goes from 15 to 100 Euro," says John
Strand, president of Strand Consult and a leading international expert
Another example: Subscribers of Danish operator Sonofon
typically have to pay six kroner (approximately $0.71) for sending an
SMS from Spain (a popular resort destination for Danish tourists and
retirees) to Denmark, according to Strand.
consumer trap - and not much fun," he says.
technical hurdles in the United States, there has been some SMS roaming
between European and U.S. mobile phone users, industry officials and
analysts say. But it has been relatively limited and more a
marketing asset for operators, according to Longueuil. Barrabee
agrees. "While international SMS interoperability is on most of the
major carriers roadmaps, it has yet to be implemented on a wide
scale," she says.
However, the U.S. carriers are fully
aware of the potential of international SMS roaming, Barrabee points
out. "U.S. carriers recognize the potential revenue opportunities
in international inter-carrier SMS, particularly when looking at Europe
and Asia where SMS is extremely popular and volume levels are already
high," she says. "The carriers also recognize strong potential
opportunity for international SMS interoperability targeted at mobile
professionals and/or enterprise
most industry officials see MMS as ideally suited for 3G, the advanced
messaging service can also be used over 2.5G networks and even 2G
networks, some experts say.
"It's not really that key
[to have 3G]. MMS can travel over 2.5G," says
Tuman Johnsen agrees. "It works just fine on
GPRS," he says, referring to the 2.5G technology known as General
Packet Radio Service.
While SMS will see a strong growth in the
United States, MMS won't necessarily take off as much, analysts
"I am skeptical of people's desire to purchase
handset just because of its MMS capabilities," says Longueuil of
the U.S. market. He predicts MMS-capable devices will have a penetration
rate of only 4 percent in 2005.
Roaming may become a major
challenge for MMS, warns Berndt.
"There will be challenges
when subscribers roam outside of MMS coverage areas," he says.
"While they may still get some of the message, the potential
customer backlash could be significant if expectations are not managed
Some industry participants say copyright
protection will be key to getting sufficient content on
"We believe strongly in digital rights management,
which will benefit us, consumers and the content providers," says
Tuman Johnsen. "We'll be getting much more content if the
providers know they are protected."
Many operators may
decide to wait with extensive MMS offers until there is adequate digital
rights solutions in place, says Strand.
And, as with
SMS-roaming, prices may become a significant challenge for MMS, he
warns. "The biggest problem will be prices," Strand says.
"They [the operators] don't have a clue about what to
Both industry officials and analysts expect MMS to
take off in Europe sometime next year. Nokia's CEO Jorma Ollila has
predicted that more than half of the phones sold by the Finnish giant
this year will be MMS-enabled, but other factors such as networks and
content have to be in place for full uptake, analysts say.
even MMS-enabled terminals won't be enough, says Strand. "The
first low-end terminals coming to market are monochrome, which I believe
is a mistake. MMS requires color-screens to get that 'Wow'
Despite all the hurdles, MMS should see
significant success, experts say. "MMS is more fun and more
exciting than SMS," says Strand.
Tuman Johnsen agrees.
While doubting that MMS will reach the same level of success as SMS in a
while, he sees it as a clear complement to SMS for both consumers and
content providers. "Only the imagination will set the limit for
what we'll see on MMS," he
Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years
experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and
Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and
online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.