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AOL to meet rival on cell phones

Verizon cell phones will carry America Online's content and instant message program, joining rival Microsoft on the devices.

America Online cut a deal with Verizon Wireless Friday, the latest in a string of agreements with top U.S. cell phone carriers to offer AOL content and its popular instant messenger program on cell phones.

Verizon Wireless will offer AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) for an as-yet-undetermined monthly fee by the year's end, a Verizon Wireless spokesman said. Verizon Wireless, the nation?s largest wireless provider, also plans to add a link to AOL content starting now. This would put services like MapQuest and movie information from Moviefone--onto a cell phone's "deck," the initial list of menu choices that a cell phone user sees when firing up a cell phone.

AOL now has deals with five of the six top wireless carriers for to either give prominent placement on the phone's deck--prime real estate on the cell phone's tiny screen--or to sell the AIM service separately.

The lone exception is Cingular Wireless. An AOL spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the company is in talks with Cingular Wireless about reaching a similar deal. A Cingular Wireless spokesman didn't return a call for comment.

Carriers are adding wireless messaging and access to traditional Internet portals like AOL to cell phones in the hopes of finding new sources of revenue. One of the main pushes has been to get people to use their cell phones for sending wireless messages, like an IM. But so far, what has been a phenomenon in Europe, where wireless users trade 30 billion messages a month, has failed to pick up in the United States.

The number of wireless messages sent every month in the United States is just a tenth of the European monthly total, according to most surveys.

Carriers are hoping that will change, and last year began another move to make it possible for cell phone users to send a wireless message to others, regardless of what carrier either person subscribes to. Before so-called "SMS Interoperability" deals were struck, an AT&T Wireless customer, for example, could only send and receive SMS (Short Messaging Service) from another AT&T Wireless customer.

On Friday, Nextel Communications became the latest carrier to open up its doors to messages to and from other subscribers, according to a Nextel spokeswoman.

Although SMS plans vary widely, sending a message generally costs between 4 and 10 cents, and receiving one is usually free. However, some plans charge customers to receive both solicited and unsolicited messages, effectively chargingthem for spam.

Slow march across palms
AOL's pace bringing its services onto wireless devices is a relative crawl compared with rivals Microsoft and Yahoo, whose instant message programs and other kinds of content have been available through most U.S. carriers for years.

"AOL has been taking a cautious approach versus its rivals," said Joe Laszlo, Jupiter Research wireless analyst. That could mean AOL is losing the race for wireless customers, he said.

But AOL spokeswoman Jaymelina Esmele disagrees. She said AOL has been "pretty aggressive," adding its messaging and other content onto phones, starting with Sprint PCS more than a year ago.

AOL's deal with Verizon Wireless also means AOL services will be sharing space on some cell phone decks or subscriber plans with rival Microsoft.

Verizon Wireless is now offering its wireless Web subscribers a new service called "VZW with MSN," which gives Verizon Wireless users access to MSN Messenger, Hotmail, Microsoft .Net alerts, a calendar and information such as news, stocks, sports, and weather.

A Microsoft spokeswoman could not be reached Friday morning for comment.