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VoiceStream messages on more phones

The company launches a service that lets customers send text messages to cell phones supported by rival companies.

VoiceStream Wireless on Friday launched a service that lets customers send text messages to cell phones supported by rival companies, a representative said.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, the wireless carrier has been quietly testing the new service since January, according to spokeswoman Kim Thompson. It is now available for all seven million VoiceStream customers, regardless of what cell phones they own, she said.

VoiceStream is the third U.S. carrier to offer so-called inter-carrier services. The first was AT&T Wireless, which launched the service in January, followed by Cingular Wireless, which announced in February that it would offer the service nationwide this month.

Inter-carrier service lets customers send a text message to any cell phone user, regardless of the receiver's carrier. Previously, customers could send and receive text messages only to and from customers of the same wireless carrier. Subscribers to carriers that don't offer inter-carrier service can respond to, but not initiate, a text message conversation with someone who subscribes to a different carrier.

Inter-operability is one of the keys that carriers say will help the United States, which still lags behind Europe in the popularity of text messaging. Last year, there were about 176 million e-mails sent between cell phones in the United States, according to Scott Ellison, program director of wireless and mobile communications for analyst firm IDC.

Next year, Ellison believes that number will increase to 1.5 billion wireless e-mails sent. By comparison, there are an estimated 30 billion messages exchanged every month in Europe. Carriers wouldn't confirm these estimates.

Text messaging is just one of many ways in which wireless carriers are looking to find new sources of revenue, primarily to offset the cost of building new cell phone networks--projects that have run into the billions of dollars.

VoiceStream's new service is available with any subscription that includes a wireless Web connection. Messages generally cost a few cents each to send. Voicestream is offering a package deal on wireless messages--500 messages for $2.99, Thompson said.