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Mobile communities could fill 3G pipes

Social-networking and community sites are going mobile, helping boost data usage on 3G networks.

LAS VEGAS--Social networking Web sites such as MySpace.com, which will soon go mobile, could become key applications driving data usage on new 3G wireless networks.

For years, mobile operators, which have spent billions of dollars to upgrade their networks to 3G wireless technologies, have tried to get customers to do more than talk on their cell phones. Despite their efforts, the vast majority of revenue still comes from voice calling.

But that could change in the next few years. A lot of fuss has already been made about people watching TV on their cell phones and downloading music over the mobile Net, but there's another application that could also generate significant 3G data usage--social networking.

"Carriers have invested a lot of money in their networks," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "And at this point it's a lot like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see which applications will stick. I doubt there will be any single killer application, but social networking on mobile phones could certainly be one that generates usage."

Within the last year social networking and community Web sites on the fixed-line Internet have really taken off, especially among teens and twentysomethings, who spend hours online creating profiles and sharing photos, videos and blogs.

MySpace, the most popular of the social networking sites, has more than 67 million members, and it adds roughly 250,000 members every day. MySpace is ranked as the second-most visited Web site on the Internet in terms of unique users, after Yahoo, according to ComScore Media Metrix. Last year Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the company for $580 million.

Though MySpace may be among the most famous of these sites, it's certainly not the only one on the Net. There are dozens of them, including Facebook.com, which is geared toward college students. There are also photo-sharing sites, such as Flickr, that have created popular online communities.

In the past, people using these services could access them only from their desktops or laptops. But now social networking is going mobile, allowing people to use their cell phones to upload pictures or send updates to blogs.

In March, MySpace announced a deal with the soon-to-be-launched wireless reseller Helio. And earlier this week, Facebook announced deals with Cingular Wireless, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless to enable users to post messages to their Facebook profiles via SMS text messaging. Flickr also lets people post photos from their cell phones and view them from handsets as well. Sprint Nextel has created its own photo-sharing site, called PCS Picture mail. It's expected to launch this spring.

There also are new companies in the game, such as San Diego-based Intercasting, which is offering a service called Rabble. Like MySpace and Facebook, Rabble lets users create profiles so they can share photos, videos and blogs with other members of the Rabble group. Cingular and Verizon Wireless have already signed up to offer the service, charging customers $2.99 per month for access to the community.

Ubiquitous and wireless
In many ways, cell phones are the ideal tools for social networking and building online communities. Not only are people rarely without their phones, but today's handsets come equipped with sophisticated tools as well, such as cameras and digital music and video players and recorders, that can be used for documenting life. Mobile-handset makers Nokia and Sony Ericsson are even embedding technology into some of their phones that's designed to make it easier for users to upload pictures and text to blogs. These phones are solid tools for people wanting to share photos, video clips or songs with their online communities.

"Cell phones have become essential accessories," said Anil Malhotra, chief alliance officer for Bango, a company that helps wireless-content providers charge users for accessing their content. "And they're also perfect capture devices. You can take pictures, record sound, send text messages. It's a great tool for creating your own content."

What's more, those in the teen and twentysomething crowd--the biggest users of online social networks--also happen to be some of the heaviest users of mobile data services such as text messaging and downloadable ring tones.

As major mobile operators in the U.S. roll out their new 3G wireless services, more people are using them to create their own mobile Web sites. A German company called Peperoni Mobile and Internet Software, which since 2001 has provided software tools that let people all over the world build their own mobile Web sites, said it has seen an increase within the last six months of people using its software to create their own mobile Web pages. Though the company has only about 500,000 users today, it says it's signing up new ones at the rate of about 20 percent to 25 percent per month, many of them in the U.S.

When people publish a mobile Web site, they don't want to think about which phones people will use to view it. That's why network operators and cell phone makers need to work together to make it easier for users to have a unified experience.
--Marcus Ladwig, chief operating officer, Peperoni

"Phone penetration in the U.S. has pretty much caught up with Europe in the last couple of years," said Marcus Ladwig, chief operating officer for Peperoni. "And now we're seeing a lot of these people wanting to use the capabilities on their phones to share images and other things, so they're using our tools to build their own mobile Web sites."

Peperoni struck a deal earlier this year with Bango to allow its users to set up shop on the mobile Internet. Bango's technology lets people who've created mobile Web sites charge for content they distribute on their site.

Fixing the bugs
Experts say these are still the early days for the mobile Internet in general. And there still are significant issues that need to be worked out. For one, cell phone makers have been building products with different mobile Web requirements, which makes it difficult for software developers to adapt existing Web pages for the mobile Internet.

"When people publish a mobile Web site, they don't want to think about which phones people will use to view it," said Ladwig. "That's why network operators and cell phone makers need to work together to make it easier for users to have a unified experience."

Another problem is that the sophisticated cell phones capable of taking pictures and playing video and music are expensive, with some costing as much as $300. Additionally, people uploading or downloading information from these social networking mobile Web sites will also have to pay for the bandwidth they use while doing so over the mobile network. Prices on data packages vary between $10 and $25 per month.

And even though mobile operators want people to use their new 3G services, they've been reluctant to give up control of where customers go on the mobile Internet. Some carriers, such as Verizon Wireless, restrict users to their own menu of services.

And some experts, such as Forrester Research's Golvin, are skeptical that cell phones will ever be able to offer enough functionality to replace PCs when it comes to creating and sharing content.

"Cell phones are great enhancements and tools for existing bloggers or for people who are already sharing photos online," he said. "Cell phones might be good for updating sites on the fly, but the PC is still the best place to sit down and organize your content."

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