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Getting teens beyond textin'

Teenagers are fiends for sending text messages from their phones. Virgin Mobile wants them to feast on other services as well.

U.S. teenagers are among the most prodigious cell phone text message users. But will they ever do anything more sophisticated with their cell phones?

Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless operator for teenagers, is trying to find out.

The efforts of Virgin Mobile USA, which was created by entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, coincide with its introduction this week of the Audiovox Flasher V7, its first cell phone to use Sprint's high-speed wireless network, which operates at about 70 kilobits per second, or more than twice as fast as Virgin Mobile USA subscribers are used to. Faster downloads usher in more sophisticated software because the waiting time is more in line with a teen's short attention span and mercurial mood, said a Virgin Mobile USA representative.

Meanwhile, the operator hired Ottawa-based Bridgewater Systems to provide the authentication and billing services that typically support a cell phone download service.

Virgin Mobile was created with teens in mind, so it usually serves as a test bed as to which cell phone services will or won't work for the teen market. Virgin Mobile was among the first to recognize teenagers' fluid financial state and offer cell phone service without the need to sign a contract. And Virgin Mobile doesn't own a cell phone network; instead it buys bulk handsets and airtime from established operators.

For now, Virgin Mobile USA has added two new features: My Pix, a photo-messaging and online picture-storage service, and VirginXL, for buying downloadable, full-color games, wallpapers and screensavers. More services new to Virgin Mobile USA's 2 million subscribers are on the way, the company said, but it didn't offer additional detail. "We're putting significant emphasis against rolling out advanced content over the next months and in 2005," Virgin Mobile USA Chief Executive Dan Schulman said in a statement.

Up until June of last year, teenagers, who are more apt to try new technology, were an anomaly in the wireless world, especially when it came to text messaging. Though 60 percent of all Virgin Mobile USA customers send texts, averaging about 25 messages a month per user, overall U.S. appetite for wireless messaging and other forms of wireless data has been extremely tepid.

Still, the cumulative effect from dramatic cuts in prices and the spread of Internet connections to all phones is finally making basic offerings, such as short text messaging and downloadable ring tones, more mainstream.

Revenue from short message services overall in the United States will reach $1 billion this year, according to various industry estimates. In a sign that texting has gone mass market, this June there were 2.8 billion messages sent from U.S. cell phones, compared with 2.8 million sent in June 2003.