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Wagging a wireless common tongue

Canadian wireless subscribers can now send short messages over cell phones, regardless of their carrier. When will the U.S. get the message?

Canadian wireless providers have passed what many consider the biggest hurdle keeping North American cell phone owners from sending short messages, those 160-character messages now traded nearly a billion times a day in Europe and Asia.

Four Canadian carriers--Bell Mobility, Microcell Connexions, Rogers AT&T Wireless and Telus Mobility--said Tuesday that they've made it possible for the millions of Canadian wireless subscribers to exchange short messages over their cell phones, regardless of which carrier they use.

Industry analysts say Tuesday's development in Canada might prod the same American carriers into a similar arrangement. Currently in the United States, short messages can only be sent between subscribers of the same carrier. A Verizon Wireless customer, for instance, can't send a short message to a Sprint customer.

This same "interoperability" between carriers in Western Europe resulted in the current level of short messaging--about 750 million messages a day worldwide--with most of the traffic in Europe. Interest has lagged in the United States, although the SMS (Short Messaging Service) market has recently shown some signs of life.

But American carriers are still gearing up for what they expect to be an explosion of short-message traffic. Verizon Wireless, the nation's biggest wireless carrier, introduced a text messaging service nationwide earlier this year. At the time, it sold two SMS-capable phones. It now sells 10, which is half of all the Verizon handsets on the market. Spokesman Jim Gerace said the company hopes that every phone it sells in the future will be capable of getting text messages.

AT&T Wireless said there are about 1 million text messages sent over its network every day. It added another SMS-capable phone to its line Oct. 2.

Cingular also pushed deeper into text messaging, which the company believes is used by about 38 percent of teenagers who own cell phones. The company on Tuesday introduced a way to access games or download a new ring tone by sending a text message.

Cingular also on Tuesday published "Get Texting," a glossary to help define the language of an SMS conversation, which because of limited space on a cell phone screen and the difficulty of typing on a cell phone can resemble the same massacred English of personalized automobile license plates.

Tuesday's announcement by the Canadian carriers might push American carriers to knock down the walls blocking SMS traffic between customers of different wireless carriers, said Erik de Bueger, vice president of CMG, a European company that powers 60 percent of the billions of text messages sent in Western Europe. He said all four of the Canadian carriers have tapped CMG to provide the hardware needed for the cross-country interoperability.

"I'd expect the U.S. carriers to follow soon," Bueger added. He said the company is talking with various American carriers for possible deals.

But analysts aren't seeing the glass as half full. U.S. cell phone owners do their messaging on computers, not cell phones, and that habit might be very hard to break in the near term, said Keith Waryas, an IDC wireless analyst.

"Nobody is really using the stuff now," he said. "At this point, interoperability isn't that big of a deal to the consumer."

There was even more bad news for American carriers spending billions to build phone networks to offer better voice calls: A survey by Harris Interactive found that the most popular feature people want on their phones isn't SMS, but the ability for police to locate them in times of an emergency.

Unlike traditional landlines, police have no way of knowing the location of a cell phone that calls 911. Nearly 60 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed by Harris listed that as the most desired feature. Just 7 percent chose the ability to get messages of any kind on their phones.