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Ready for photos on your phone?

Sprint plans to introduce a service later this year that will let people e-mail photographs or other images from their cell phones. But most U.S. phones can't handle color photos yet.

Sprint thinks its customers are ready to get the picture.

The wireless telephone service provider plans to introduce a service later this year that will let people e-mail photographs or other types of images from their cell phones, sources said Monday.

Sprint announced Monday that it had hired Santa Cruz, Calif.-based LightSurf Technologies to help run the service.

"They are on track to be the first nationwide wireless photo-messaging service," said Robin Nijor, LightSurf Technologies' vice president of marketing.

Most wireless carriers have spent billions of dollars in the last few years building faster telephone networks to handle an increase in subscribers. Verizon Wireless has already launched its next-generation phone system, and Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint intends to launch its higher-speed network as early as next month.

To help offset the costs, wireless carriers are exploring new services such as wireless messaging. Most carriers charge a small fee--between 4 cents and 10 cents--to send a wireless e-mail from a handset.

But analysts say not to expect too much too soon from picture messaging and other types of wireless e-mail. The difficulty entering text into a phone, plus the fees most carriers already charge to send and receive wireless e-mail, are some of the more common complaints from customers.

Another hurdle is building a cell phone capable of showing color photos. Most cell phones in the United States can already get wireless e-mail. But only a handful of phones have color screens. Camera phones, which combine a camera with a cell phone, are scarce.

Sprint said the relationship it has entered into with LightSurf will let people "point and shoot" a photograph using a cell phone or an attached digital camera. But as of Monday, the carrier was not selling any phone with either a camera built in or the capability to have a camera attached to it.

That may change soon. On Monday, Motorola announced it would begin large-volume shipments of a new "camera on a chip" it developed with Kodak. The company plans to begin shipping the new chip to phone makers during the third quarter. The chip is meant for cell phones, personal digital assistants and other portable devices.

Cell phone chipmaker Qualcomm expects camera phones to be offered in the United States soon. The company's technology is inside picture phones now used in Japan and Korea, said Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing for Qualcomm.

"I expect them to start showing up in the United States in the next 12 months," he said.