The mobile Internet: Are we there yet?

Basic components, such as speedy wireless networks and Web page formats for the small screen, are on the way.

After years of hype, wireless users in the United States are waiting for all the technology pieces to come together to make surfing the Internet from their handsets as easy as it is on their PCs at home.

So how close are we to simple and robust Web surfing from a cell phone?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Some experts say the mobile Internet is already here. Millions of people throughout the world are accessing wireless application protocol, or WAP, Web sites--stripped-down sites specially designed for mobile handsets. But other experts argue that WAP sites are too limited. Some people say an entirely new domain name, called "dot-mobi," should be used for Web sites that are optimized for mobile surfing. Still others propose using intelligent browsers to turn traditional Web sites into something that can be viewed on a small handset.

"I think what people really want is to be able to access the same sites they access on their PCs, but from their phones," said Matt Hatton, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group based in the United Kingdom. "Once we can get the experience to look and feel more like the traditional Internet, more people will be willing to spend the money to pay for the services."

While there is still a lot of disagreement over how subscribers should be accessing mobile Web sites, there's almost complete agreement that when the mobile Internet finally hits mainstream adoption, it's going to be big.

The largest U.S. mobile carriers--Cingular Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless--are already seeing huge growth in data usage. Together they generated more than $6.3 billion in wireless data revenues for the first half of 2006, said Chetan Sharma, an independent mobile wireless consultant. Overall, wireless data service revenues, which also include several regional carriers, exceeded $7 billion in the first half of the year. Mobile carriers in the U.S. could generate more than $15 billion in data revenue for all of 2006. This is almost a 75 percent jump from 2005, when data services for the entire year accounted for $8.6 billion.

To date, most of the mobile data growth in the United States has been from consumer messaging services, like short-message service (SMS), and from enterprise data services. But unlike mobile Internet usage by wireless customers in Japan or South Korea, surfing the mobile Web in the U.S. hasn't yet caught on. In a survey conducted by Yankee Group in April, about 18 percent of wireless users in the U.S. said they had at least tried using the mobile Internet, but only 6 percent considered themselves regular mobile Internet users.

Experts say the biggest reason why users aren't using their cell phones to access the Web more often is that compared with the traditional Internet, today's mobile Internet is still fairly rudimentary when it comes to Web site quality and ease of navigation. Part of this experience is determined by the technology used by Web site developers and phone manufacturers providing access to sites. But it's also impacted by the fact that most users don't yet have access to faster 3G networks and affordable 3G handsets, which greatly improve quality.

"We're just waiting for all the pieces to come together," said Linda Barrabee, program manager for Wireless and Mobile at Yankee Group in the U.S. "I think once carriers improve the experience and solve the network and handset penetration issues, the services will become a lot more appealing to consumers."

Specialty services
New mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, such as Mobile ESPN and Helio, are trying to improve the mobile Internet and multimedia experience for consumers. Mobile ESPN is going after sports fanatics with a service that offers video clips, alerts and news that can be downloaded onto phones. And Helio is targeting young hipsters by offering high-end phones for accessing interactive games, high-quality videos and Web content. The company struck a special deal with the MySpace social-networking Web site, so users can read and write MySpace mail from their handsets, send bulletins, read and write blogs, view photos and profiles, and post photos to the MySpace space directly from their phones.

But because Mobile ESPN and Helio lease capacity from Sprint Nextel instead of owning their own networks, their services are dependent on the underlying speed of the network, which means that even though the handsets are capable of doing much more, downloading content or surfing Web pages could still take a long time. Early indications suggest Mobile ESPN and Helio are struggling to sign up customers.

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