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3GSM: Wireless sharpens its edge in Barcelona

One of the industry's largest trade shows is underway this week in Spain as new phones, services and strategies take the spotlight.

Starting Monday, leaders in the mobile industry will gather at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to discuss the hottest trends in the wireless market, from mobilizing the Web 2.0 experience to the latest and greatest devices to simply figuring out how to make money from new applications and services.

More than 60,000 visitors are expected to attend 3GSM this year, according to the GSM Association (GSMA), the global trade association representing phone operators and manufacturers that organizes the event. The trade show, which features some 1,300 stands, is among the largest wireless events in the world.

Because the show is based in Europe and draws a significant number of attendees and exhibitors from Asia, where mobile technology is typically more advanced than in North America, it often provides a sneak peak at technology and trends that will soon make it to the U.S. market.

Analysts attending this year's event say there will be several themes dominating the show floor and discussions throughout the congress. "I don't think that there will be any single theme this year," said Matt Hatton, a senior analyst for Yankee Group. "But there will be a lot of talk around taking the mobile Internet to the next level, making it a richer experience, and figuring out how to make money from it."

Mobilizing Web 2.0
A watered-down version of the mobile Internet is no longer acceptable to subscribers, Hatton said. And as a result, operators are trying to figure out ways to make surfing the Net on a handset resemble surfing the Web on a PC as closely as possible. One operator focusing on this issue, U.K.-based Vodafone Group, announced last week as a preview to 3GSM that it has struck deals with social-networking site MySpace and video-sharing site YouTube to add those applications to its handsets.

This means Vodafone subscribers will be able to access daily new videos from YouTube as well as upload content and send recommendations to their friends. Vodafone's deal with Myspace will allow almost full functionality to edit personal profiles, post to blogs and receive messages. Initially, these services will be launched in the U.K., but they'll eventually be extended across Europe using the Vodafone Live multimedia service.

Finnish-based Nokia announced a deal to bring YouTube videos and RSS feeds onto Nokia Nseries multimedia handheld computers. The videos are accessible with Nokia Web Browser with Mini Map through the new YouTube mobile site.

Some U.S operators have announced similar deals. For example, Verizon Wireless announced last year that it would offer YouTube as part of its multimedia service. And the virtual operator Helio announced a deal with Myspace.

Turner Broadcasting System and telecommunication equipment maker Ericsson agreed to collaborate on turning Turner's existing Internet, broadcast news and entertainment content--such as CNN International, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim material--into a format that can be easily viewed on mobile devices. The first of these jointly developed services, a new CNN Mobile service, will debut for European users on Monday at 3GSM.

Advertising and local search

Today Google reigns as the undisputed king of Internet search. But some mobile operators are wary of working with the 800-pound gorilla, because they fear that the search function powered by Google will undermine their own brand.

"The operators want to control the relationship with their subscriber," said Iain Gillott, founder of iGillottResearch. "And that's very difficult to do when Google's brand is so strong."

At last year's 3GSM, Vodafone announced a deal to partner with Google on its search technology. A year later, there are still few details about what Vodafone and Google would actually be doing. There are also rumors that a deal Google struck with T-Mobile is not going well.

Some industry watchers speculate that several carriers, including Cingular Wireless, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Hutchison Whampoa, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Vodafone are planning to announce the creation of their own mobile search engine. An announcement on that subject could come soon, possibly during 3GSM.

Location, location, location
Location services coupled with search are also becoming more important, especially to advertisers who want to target people looking for specific goods and services in their area.

Currently, most location services are based on GPS technology, which allows satellites orbiting the Earth to track location. But the technology is not foolproof. Because it uses satellites, it's often unable to give accurate location information for people in dense urban areas or indoors, where satellite signals can't reach.

A company called Skyhook Wireless has developed a Wi-Fi?based positioning system to determine location. Last week, SiRF Technology Holdings, a leading provider of GPS-enabled silicon, said it will license Skyhook's technology to create a single positioning system for wireless carriers that combines the best of both GPS and Wi-Fi technologies. The two companies will demonstrate the new hybrid GPS-WiFi location technology at 3GSM.

Mobile TV
If 2006 was mobile TV's coming-out party, 2007 is the year that operators demonstrate the technology and talk about real deployments. Telecom equipment maker Ericsson plans to offer a live demonstration of its Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (MBMS), a technology that uses existing 3G network infrastructure to broadcast TV. The demonstration follows Ericsson's successful completion of the world's first live MBMS trial in 2006 and is a precursor to the commercial rollout scheduled for 2008.

While Ericsson's MBMS technology is a much cheaper solution than other proposed mobile TV technologies, most European carriers seem to be leaning toward a different technology, called DVB-H (digital video broadcasting--handheld). DVB-H got a significant boost from handset makers Nokia and Motorola in September when they announced they'd develop DVB-H handsets. Blog sites are buzzing that Nokia may even debut its N77, low-end DVB-H phone at 3GSM. The phone will likely sell for about $260 to $390 (200 to 300 euros).

There are other mobile TV standards being tested as well, including DAB-IP (digital audio broadcasting--Internet Protocol), used by BT and Virgin Mobile and MediaFlo, the Qualcomm standard being pilot-tested by Sky Broadcasting's Sky Link. Verizon Wireless in the U.S. announced earlier this year that it will use MediaFlo to offer its new V Cast TV service, which is set to launch in the first quarter.

In addition to new technology, new content will also debut at 3GSM. Robert Redford's Sundance Institute is teaming with GSM Association to launch the "Sundance Film Festival: Global Short Film Project." Announced last year, the project has commissioned several filmmakers to make movies especially for cell phones. The films will show Monday at 3GSM. The movies, one of which was created by the team that directed Little Miss Sunshine, will be about five minutes long. Many of GSMA's 700 mobile operators are expected to make the movies available on their networks after 3GSM ends.

Cool phones

And what would a mega mobile trade show be without new phones? While it's unlikely that Apple will announce a European partner for its iPhone, the iPod/phone won't be far from the minds of device makers, who are looking for ways to top Apple's product, which is due out in the U.S. market in June.

Sony Ericsson will be showing off its W880i, a super-thin 3G music phone that can store up to 900 tracks. The three big cell phone manufacturers Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung are all expected to show off their latest and greatest products. Yankee Group's Hatton expects to see a lot of smart phones geared toward business users. For Nokia this means enhancements to its E-series phones, such as the E62 and the new E65 slider, and for Motorola new features for the Q. Motorola will also be showing off its thin music phone, the KRZR K3. Research in Motion is expected to show off the 8800 "Indigo" device. And Samsung is likely feature its new ultra thin 3G phones, called the Ultra Edition II.

Low-end phones geared for the emerging markets will also be on display. And the GSMA is expected to announce which mobile device manufacturer has won a contract to supply between 10 and 12 operators in the developing regions of the world with phones costing less than $100, Hatton said. Word is that LG will likely be the supplier. By banding together and selecting only one supplier, manufacturers are guaranteed the necessary volumes to keep prices low.

Nokia showed in the fourth quarter of 2006 that manufacturers can target the low-end of the market without taking a huge financial hit.

CNET's Elinor Mills contributed to this report.