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Phones getting cozy with photos

Already popular in Europe, a technology that allows cell phone users to send text messages with a photo attachment is on its way to the U.S.

LAS VEGAS--A new kind of wireless message is about to arrive in the United States, sources said Thursday.

Multimedia Message Service, or MMS, is a technology that allows e-mails to carry attachments such as documents, sound recordings or movie clips. Personal computers have been exchanging MMS messages over e-mail for years.

In the next few weeks, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile plan to launch MMS services for cell phones, according to sources. AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless are expected to sell MMS-capable phones sometime next year, an indication that both carriers will make MMS services available to subscribers, sources said.

Carriers are turning to the new technology to make up for revenue lost from fierce competition in the market, which brought the price of cell phone calls to new lows. Wireless messaging is an early favorite among carriers, as it brings in subscription fees that range between $4 and $12 a month. Carriers also collect a small fee each message is sent between phones.

While popular in Europe, wireless messaging hasn't been the "killer app" many cell phone carriers had hoped for in the United States. Only 10 million of the nation's 140 million cell phone owners use their handsets for anything more than voice calls.

The technology may finally be catching on, according to Thomas Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA). In June, some 1 billion wireless e-mails were sent in the United States--compared to just 30,000 sent in the same period a year earlier, Wheeler said at the Wireless I.T. and Internet 2002 trade show here.

Such e-mails are known as SMS (Short Message Service) messages. Often 160 characters in length, the e-mails are sent wirelessly without attachments from cell phone to cell phone.

Wheeler described SMS as "training wheels" for data services like MMS.

"SMS is the way in which consumers realize that their wireless devices can do more than make a phone call," Wheeler told trade show attendees.

The first MMS service in the United States may come from Verizon Wireless. Sources said the nation's largest wireless carrier would launch a wireless MMS service in the next few days as part of its Get It Now line-up of downloadable games and applications.

Verizon Wireless will use Eyematic's forthcoming MMS application called "Shout Messenger," sources said. The application will let users attach animated images of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wolverine or Storm to wireless messages.

Verizon Wireless representatives offered no comment on the proposed service on Thursday.

Wireless carrier T-Mobile hasn't launched an MMS service yet, but its network is now ready for the technology, according to sources at handset maker Nokia. The Finnish phone maker is using T-Mobile's network to demonstrate the MMS capabilities of the Nokia 3650 cell phone. A Nokia source said T-Mobile is expected to introduce an MMS service in the next few days.

A T-Mobile representative could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Nokia 3650 phone, expected to sell for $450 with MMS capabilities, will debut in the United States in early 2003, Nokia said.

The Nokia 3650 uses the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phone standard. U.S. carriers T-Mobile, Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless--which have GSM networks--are likely candidates to sell the phone in the United States.