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Vodafone links up with Manchester United

Deal has far-reaching implications for future of mobile phones

Vodafone AirTouch (quote: VOD) will become Manchester United's new shirt sponsor, replacing electronics maker Sharp, as the result of the biggest football sponsorship deal ever, announced last week. But the impact won't end with marketing Vodafone's telecommunications brand; according to experts, the deal is the most prominent evidence to date that the next generation of interactive mobile phones is becoming a reality.

The deal is worth £30m over a four-year period, according to the groups.

Vodafone -- which recently clinched another landmark deal with the biggest merger ever, buying Germany's Mannesmann for £114bn -- will supply wireless services such as live match scores and, eventually, live video clips from games over a mobile phone. The video coverage won't be available for a year or two, when more advanced phones and infrastructure arrive, but supporters can begin to see live news and information beginning this summer.

The services use WAP, or Wireless Application Protocol, which is already available on some phones. E-commerce, retail and banking companies are all investigating ways of making their services available over WAP; Swedes can already do their banking via the screens of their mobiles.

Many experts believe that in Europe at least, where mobile phone usage is far more common than in the US, wireless phones will overtake PCs as the way most people experience the Internet.

Peter Bamford, CEO of Vodafone UK, said the deal goes beyond a pure shirt sponsorship. "This... will bring a new range of mobile information services to a loyal massive supporter base. There is additional business potential in the bringing together of the world's largest telecommunications company and the world's best known football club," he said in a statement.

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