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Cingular bets short messaging will grow

The wireless carrier is expanding its network to handle more e-mail sent between cell phone users. Though Americans are slowly catching on to the trend, problems remain.

Cingular Wireless is making a long investment in short messaging.

The U.S. wireless carrier is expanding its network to handle more e-mail sent between cell phones, technology known as SMS (Short Messaging Service), Cingular spokesman John Kampfe said Monday.

The long, expensive buildup makes Cingular increasingly reliant on short messaging, which is little-known in the United States and has been gaining prominence in the country.

An estimated 30 billion of these messages are sent every month in Europe. But in the United States, SMS use is lagging. Surveys conducted last year, for instance, showed that a majority of U.S. cell phone owners did not even know they could send each other e-mail.

But according to Cingular and to new figures from research firm IDC expected next week, Americans are catching on to the communication. Though the carriers say benefits include being able to receive a text message free of charge, consumers grumble about the awkwardness of typing a word using a cell phone keypad.

Kampfe said Cingular has experienced a 450 percent increase in messaging traffic on its network since June. Though he declined to be more specific about traffic and about the financial terms of the expansion, he did say there are "tens of millions of messages" sent each month.

The growth was enough for Cingular to employ message-center maker Logica Mobile Networks to expand the carrier's network capacity, Kampfe said.

"Everybody talks about how SMS has taken off in Europe and is lagging well behind in the U.S.," Kampfe said. "This is really some hard evidence that SMS is really starting to take off in the U.S. as well."

IDC expects that this year will see a quadrupling of the number of U.S. wireless subscribers sending short messages. There are now 2 million SMS users in the United States. That figure will increase to 8 million by the end of the year.

"Ultimately, what you're talking about is a culture shift," said Keith Waryas, an IDC analyst. "The U.S. is the largest e-mail user in the world, but you have to get people accustomed to using their phones to do it."

But several problems remain, including how to enter text. It can take three separate keystrokes to produce a single letter. Some phones try to guess the balance of a word being tapped out, and other devices, like Web-enabled Palms, have snap-on keyboards.

Another problem has to do with interoperability. In the United States, cell phone users can only send each other messages if they share the same carrier. But in Europe, where most carriers use the same type of cell phone technology, nearly every cell phone user can send messages to someone else regardless of the carrier.

Several companies are working on the problem, however. Upstart SMS.ac, for example, says it thinks it has come up with a way around the issue.

CEO Michael Pousti says the company has developed hardware and software that carriers can put on their networks to let members of two different carriers send messages to each other.

"The wireless space is in a critical stage right now," he said. "Let's hope the industry rises to this wake-up call."