U.S. cell phone firms allow cross-carrier photo swaps

Cingular and Verizon Wireless are accepting photo mails from each other's subscribers in hopes of juicing cell phone use.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
NEW ORLEANS--The top two U.S. cell phone carriers have become the first to let their subscribers swap photo mails and other mixed-media messages with each other's customers.

The agreement between No. 1 cell phone company Cingular Wireless and No. 2 operator Verizon Wireless was quietly put into place sometime during the last few weeks. Together the carriers account for 93 million of the 180 million U.S. cell phone subscribers, and it's likely the arrangement will spur other top U.S. operators to reach similar pacts.

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In the four years since Sprint introduced the first camera phones in the United States and other top carriers introduced copycat services, cell phone operators have limited photo mail swaps to transactions between their own subscribers. But now those barriers are dropping, erasing a major hurdle and, some executive believe, starting a surge in cell phone photo mailing and other use.

"We saw the same thing with text messaging: As soon as there was intercarrier messaging, use of text messaging started to soar," Cingular Wireless Vice President Jim Ryan said Tuesday during an interview here at CTIA Wireless 2005, a major cell phone trade show. "We're trading traffic with Verizon Wireless right now. By the end of the second quarter, we're looking to be interoperable with all major carriers."

"Trading traffic" with Verizon was not an easy feat from a technology perspective, mainly because not every camera phone is the same. Some have different screen sizes or differ in the range of colors they can work with. The nuances mean operators must adjust the photos accordingly, using network equipment known as a mixed-media message service center.

Adding to the complexities, say analysts and cell phone company executives, is that cell phone service providers have each built slightly different versions of photo services, instead of waiting for an industrywide standard.

Despite interoperability difficulties, camera phones are credited with the surging use of wireless data services in the United States, with some wireless operators saying their data revenues have doubled in the past two years.

Last year, 180 million camera phones were sold worldwide, a 130 percent increase over 2003. Most analysts believe the growth will continue, with some predicting about 280 million camera phones will be sold by the end of the year. There may be 1 billion camera phones in circulation by year's end.

The agreement between Cingular and Verizon Wireless surfaces just a day after Kodak Chief Executive Daniel Carp lambasted the cell phone industry for moving too quickly to more-advanced mixed-media services, such as streaming video to handsets, without fixing the problems of photo mail services. The end result, Carp warned, will be throttling these services, which have been credited with Americans' increased use of their cell phones' Internet connections, which comes into play in photo mail services.