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AirMedia plays matchmaker for wireless content

The same company that went into bankruptcy in 1999 is peddling a service that matches up wireless Web sites with content providers.

Mark Bregman A formerly bankrupt wireless content provider has resurrected itself to become the wireless Web's first matchmaker for wireless sites seeking content providers.

AirMedia is back from its failed days of operating a "news catcher" for wireless devices. The same company that went into bankruptcy in 1999 is now peddling a service to match up wireless Web sites with content providers through what it's calling the "AirMedia Hub." On the terrestrial Web, the same type of site is known as an exchange.

With $29 million backing, the company has managed to attract about 50 content providers to a service it will debut this week. Content providers include AccuWeather, U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian, Scoreboard.com and Web-based news site Nando Media. Wireless Web sites can scour the AirMedia listings and negotiate their own deals with the content providers. For every deal, AirMedia gets 15 percent.

Some analysts are hesitant to pronounce AirMedia's effort a success just yet; the young wireless industry is still stumbling over what kind of content will work and whether anyone will pay for getting the same kind of information they can get for free on the terrestrial Web.

"There are lots of people who would like to get into the wireless industry who might be very good marketers or packagers of information," said Alan Riter, president of consulting firm Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing. "But the big question is, how will they generate any income?"

Wireless industry players think AirMedia may be the first of its kind--a site that offers a business-to-business set-up for strictly wireless Web sites. The point is arguable because there are other existing business exchanges and portals that sell bandwidth for wireless service providers.

Regardless, AirMedia's Chief Executive Mark Bregman is hoping for more success than the wired Web's exchange community. At the start of 2000, there were about 1,200 exchanges on the Web. Some analysts are predicting a 90 percent failure rate for the Internet's offerings.

Bregman, who left a leadership role at IBM's pervasive computing unit to help launch the service, recognizes the risks.

But the technical difficulties posed by the varying standards for wireless devices, on-the-fly billing for content, and the number of wireless devices themselves demand a middleman such as AirMedia, Bregman said.

The confusion and number of competing devices should sound familiar. That's the way it was during the first explosive few years of the growth of the wired Internet. But eventually "things got a lot clearer," Bregman said.

Bregman joined AirMedia in mid-2000, about a year after the company filed for bankruptcy. About 30 days after the filing, a company called Wireless Internet bought the assets.

Since then, the company has received about $29 million in funding from Citigroup Ventures, Verus International and David Rose, the original AirMedia founder and its current chairman.

AirMedia's previous incarnation also involved hawking news and entertainment. In the mid-1990s, the company tried to deliver the content to PCs through a wireless environment.