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Pope to ping the faithful

The pontiff's "thought of the day" is set to become available first to Verizon Wireless subscribers, and other carriers are expected to follow.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
Verizon Wireless is launching a new cell phone service in the United States on Wednesday that will allow subscribers to receive messages from the pope.

Subscribers will pay 30 cents for each daily missive based on the homilies, speeches and messages of Pope John Paul II, under a deal with the Vatican and Italian wireless services provider Acotel, based in Rome. AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless will follow quickly with their own versions, sources said.

To use the service, Verizon Wireless subscribers address a text message to "24444." Within a few seconds, a message returns containing that day's "nondenominational...inspirational message of prayers and guidance," according to a description of the service circulated Tuesday by Acotel.

"People are always trying to find ways to market His Holiness," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

By offering the pope's daily message, U.S. cell phone service providers hope to find an audience among the growing number of people developing a taste for virtual religion and who want to get theirs on the go. Religion now ranks as among the top three reasons why people use the Internet, and religious options on the wired Web are nearly as vast as the medium itself. However, very little of it is created for a cell phone's small screen and limited processing power.

"Religion has the classic ingredients of any popular content service: a large and passionate community of interest," said David Kerr, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "For this to extend to the mobile environment is only natural."

The new cell phone service also signals, once again, the pro-technology leanings of present-day Catholic Church administrators. John Paul, who turns 84 in May, already uses the wired Internet to spread his messages about God and global peace. In the past, he has described the World Wide Web as a "wonderful instrument."

"While the Internet can never replace that profound experience of God which only the living, liturgical and sacramental life of the Church can offer, it can certainly provide a unique supplement and support in both preparing for the encounter with Christ in community, and sustaining the new believer in the journey of faith which then begins," the pontiff proclaimed at the 36th annual World Communications Day that took place two years ago.

Sister Walsh said the church has always used technology to spread the word of God, starting with the first printing presses. The Internet has been a particular boon, she added, and religious groups in general are embracing it. However, she was skeptical of the new cell phone service.

She likened the wireless homilies to mostly defunct telephone services that allowed people to dial a number and hear a pre-recorded message from the pope for a fee. "I don't know if this will be hugely successful either," she said.

Spreading the word
The Vatican is participating in the new U.S. cell phone services by supplying the text message content through a partnership with Acotel. The same services are available to cell phone subscribers in Italy, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

"The Catholic Church isn't exactly known for being at the bleeding edge of technology, but this pope is trying to get a modern message out there," Strategy Analytics' Kerr said.

Although the Vatican does not profit from the service, the daily homilies could help with difficulties it has reaching younger generations put off by recent clergy sex-abuse scandals. Cell phones are considered de rigueur for teenagers, especially in Europe, and a growing percentage of American teenagers are carrying them as well. Replacing preaching with "texting" could help reach this scattered part of the flock.

"The church is so disconnected from younger generations that trying to do something with mobile makes sense," because phones are the latest must-have gadget among younger generations, Kerr said.

Representatives from Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless had no immediate comment.

While U.S. carriers already offer subscribers scores of downloadable games and cell phone Web pages, Verizon's new papal proffer may stand out because of the renewed interest in religious-based content such as Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ" and recently aired TV movies based on Bible stories.

Wireless companies also have created services geared to other religious groups, including Muslims. In Malaysia, cell phones are appearing that notify the user five times a day when Islamic prayer times occur and can determine the direction of Mecca, according to Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working with Intel who has studied technology use in Asia.

But not even the word of God may be able to help the still-flagging interest in other forms of wireless data that carriers are selling.

U.S. carriers say that while popularity of text messaging and other wireless data services continues to grow, the services represent only about 3 percent of their overall annual revenue.

Carriers are relying more heavily on wireless data offers, such as games and ring tones, to make up for lost revenue from lowering calling plan prices to keep pace with competition.

One recent successful wireless data service is picture messaging, which involves the use of camera phones to snap photos and send them to other phones or computers. But even this wireless data success story is marred.

Picture-mail services are being hampered by problems of interoperability in the United States. For technology reasons, picture mails can be shared only among subscribers to the same service provider. Several carriers are working on solving the problem sometime this year.