Red-light district on a tiny mobile screen

As cell phones gear up for video and the mobile Internet, a new motto for consumers and the industry could be "dial P for porn."Photo: Ringing up mobile porn
Written by Marguerite Reardon, Contributor
Whether it's on a mobile phone or at a newsstand, sex sells--and as more people get access to high-speed wireless networks, cell phones could be a hot platform for porn.

Adult programming has been an innovator for many new entertainment technologies. Home video was developed initially to supply adult programming. Cable operators' pay-per-view services were initially developed to sell and distribute adult movies directly to consumers in their homes. And some of the earliest Web sites and chat rooms emerged on the Internet to distribute and discuss porn.

"Porn has worked in just about every medium there is, from physical clubs to print to DVD to the Internet," said Bruce Gibson, research director at U.K.-based research firm Juniper Research. "So why wouldn't it work in mobile?"

Now with the dawn of new high-speed 3G, or third-generation wireless networks, pornographic videos are likely to flood the small screen. Still, analysts say several unresolved issues will likely prevent adult mobile content from becoming a major traffic-driving sensation anytime soon.

"There are a number of issues at the moment that constrain its potential," Gibson said. "But the rollout of 3G networks and improved mobile Internet navigation will certainly make it much more available. Whether or not it will appeal to more casual users and gain wider acceptance, we'll have to wait and see."

In 2006, adult mobile content generated about $1.4 billion in sales worldwide in a market where mobile entertainment in general generated about $17 billion, according to Juniper Research. While adult mobile content generated far less revenue than other types of entertainment such as mobile music, which accounted for $6.6 billion, it will likely grow over the next several years. By 2011, adult content will account for $3.3 billion worth of mobile content sales out of a total of $77 billion in entertainment revenue, according to Juniper Research.

Still, mobile phones as a distribution medium for adult content still have a long way to go in terms of becoming a meaningful source of revenue. Steven Hirsch, co-CEO of Vivid Entertainment, one of the world's largest adult film producers, said that mobile distribution currently makes up only about 5 percent of his company's total revenue.

Ringing up mobile porn

The lackluster reception adult entertainment has gotten in the wireless market so far is largely due to mobile operators' concerns over age verification and a general reluctance in some parts of the world to associate themselves with seedy content providers.

Other barriers are more technical in nature. Most of the world's 2.5 billion cell phone subscribers don't yet have 3G-capable handsets. And the mobile Internet is still difficult to navigate, making it hard for users to find content and forcing them to access material that's available only through their operator.

But as all these issues get resolved, Hirsch said he sees a huge upside to the mobile market.

"We have been interested in wireless for several years," he said. "We are one of the few guys who are able to monetize our content wirelessly, so it makes sense for us to be here."

Today most adult content is accessed through a mobile operator's own menu or "deck." In Europe and in parts of Asia this hasn't been a major barrier for adult content creators. Racy movies and pictures are much more socially accepted there. As a result, even the largest carriers in Europe, including Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, carry mobile movies from porn film producers such as Vivid Entertainment.

But the situation is much different in North America. Here none of the large U.S. wireless carriers offer adult content on their decks. Hirsch believes that mobile operators are reluctant to add adult content to their lineups because they aren't comfortable yet with technology to verify subscribers' ages.

"Once operators become more comfortable with access controls, and they see that there is no fraud and they can verify age, I think they'll start adding the content," he said. "It's not our desire for this content to be seen by anyone other than adults who want to view it."

Mobile content experts say that the parental control issues are just one reason that operators in North America haven't added porn to their decks. Another major reason is that they fear a backlash from the public. Earlier this month, Telus, Canada's second-biggest phone company, reversed its decision to sell pornography on mobile phones after customers including the Catholic Church threatened to cancel their service.

"North American companies are very brand conscious," Gibson said. "They don't want to be associated with adult content, so they don't want mobile porn seen on their Web portals."

This is largely the reason that AT&T's Cingular Wireless does not offer adult content as a part of its service. While Cingular has developed parental controls and filtering technologies to keep adult content out of the hands of underage subscribers, it said it still has no plans to offer porn directly to subscribers.

"We are not in the adult content business," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless, which is now owned by AT&T. "And we have no plans to offer it. We recognize that people can use wireless devices to go anywhere they want on the Internet. That is why we have added parental control features."

While Hirsch said he hopes that mobile operators get more comfortable with adding adult content to their decks, he said he recognizes it's not the only way to get his company's movies onto mobile phones in the U.S. market. He believes that subscribers will also access Vivid content directly from mobile Web sites.

If trends in the traditional Internet are any indication, then porn downloaded from the mobile Web could do very well. In 2006, the entire adult entertainment market generated $12.9 billion, according to AVN, a trade publication for the adult entertainment industry. Internet sales of adult content, which includes images, live chat and live streaming video, became the second-largest adult entertainment segment with 22 percent of the market, or $2.8 billion in sales.

With the advent of higher-speed networks, the Internet experience on mobile devices will be more like what is experienced on a computer. This could prove to be hugely beneficial to the mobile porn industry, because wireless subscribers would no longer have to depend on their carriers to provide links to content. Instead, they could easily surf the Web using mobile Internet browsers.

Gibson said that the mobile Internet experience is improving, especially as search companies such as Google and Yahoo fine-tune their products for the mobile environment.

"It's still too difficult to use the mobile Internet," he said. "You can put a URL in a mobile browser today, but the experience is still pretty clunky. But once that becomes easier, it could really open up the market."

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