Customized wireless surfing services on the up

Canadian carrier Bell Mobility on Wednesday became the latest in a growing number of wireless phone service providers to allow mobile Internet customers more freedom when surfing the Web from their cellular phones.

Canadian carrier Bell Mobility on Wednesday became the latest in a growing number of wireless phone service providers to allow mobile Internet customers more freedom when surfing the Web from their cellular phones.

In the past, Web content on mobile phones was limited to a few information providers such as news outlets and sites offering stock quotes. But now dozens of carriers like Bell Mobility are offering free "customization" services that let people create their own mobile Web sites packed with favorite links or applications. Some of these links allow access to Web sites that are not part of the carriers' official content offerings.

"Mobile consumers and professionals want their own interests reflected in their user interface," said Kelly Dixon, general manager of wireless Internet and data at Bell Mobility. "It is increasingly looked upon as part of their personal space."

This trend, begun by Verizon Wireless a year ago, could help jump-start mobile Internet services, which have largely remained stagnant since their inception.

"There are relatively high subscriber numbers, but nobody is using (wireless Net access) right now," said Gartner Dataquest senior wireless analyst Tole Hart. "It should be as easy as possible, so more people will use it."

A similar push for customized content by Internet portals such as Yahoo, Excite@Home and Lycos is credited with helping the Internet streak to worldwide prominence. Carriers believe such portals could do the same for the wireless Web, which has been slow to gather customers because of the limited number of Web pages and the difficulty of navigating the Web using a cell phone's keypad, analysts say.

"When the Internet started, you had a choice of just a number of portals," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association. "Today you can fully design your own Web portal. It's no surprise the wireless Internet is following that model."

But there is risk involved. Customization makes it easier to surf the wireless Web, leading to less minutes spent on the phone and less revenues for the carriers, analysts say. But carriers seem willing to take the risk because they expect an easier-to-use Internet service to attract more consumers, analysts say.

"It's a trade-off," said Roberta Wiggins, a wireless industry analyst with The Yankee Group. "You get more satisfied customers, but you lose a little money."

The payoff could be anywhere between US$5.3 billion and US$10.6 billion a year in additional revenue for carriers, according to projections from McKinsey Quarterly, a publication by market research firm McKinsey.

Such customization services already are offered by North American carriers Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular and AT&T Wireless. In the next few months, a Swedish company is quietly planning to begin offering North American carriers a way to create a mobile Web portal just for the 18- to 26-year-old set.

There are also a growing number of carriers outside North America jumping onto the customization bandwagon.

Seattle-based InfoSpace, which offers customization services to carriers, is in talks with several carriers in South America, Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia, according to spokesman Steve Stratz.

But international expansion may prove difficult because many wireless Web customers first need to create their own mobile portals using a personal computer connected to the Internet, said Jesse Perla, chief technology officer at MobileQ, a Canadian company that also offers customization services to carriers.

In areas such as Japan, there is only one personal computer for every five cell phones. In Europe, there are two cell phones for every one personal computer.

Perla said the next release of the MobileQ product will let consumers customize their portals using a cell phone.

The company is just one of several betting its future on helping wireless carriers make mobile Net access easier than ever. Analysts and industry executives say ease of use is critical to making the wireless Web more popular with consumers and business customers.

"As more people access the Web through wireless devices, the management and personalization of content will become a greater issue for service providers," said Suren Pai, president of MobileQ.