Europe Gets the Picture
The past few weeks have seen deals announced in Germany, Italy, and Finland, while many more intercarrier agreements are expected to be signed off in December and January all over Europe.
While the majority of the continent's major operators have launched picture messaging, for which customers need a camera phone and a GPRS account, few operators have the agreements in place that allow the growing number of subscribers with the right accounts and camera phones to send the pictures from one operator's network to another. At present, to send from one phone to another requires the sender and receiver to be on the same network, though picture messages can be sent from handsets to email addresses, and the pictures viewed on PCs. But as the number of handsets with embedded cameras available increases -– there are models now from Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY), Panasonic, Sharp Electronics Corp., and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications in the high street stores – so the carriers are signing off on the commercial arrangements and opening the gateways between their networks. Just yesterday, an interoperability deal was announced between Telecom Italia Mobile SpA (Milan: TIM) and Vodafone Omnitel. "These Italian mobile telephone operators are among the first in Europe to activate multimedia messaging service interconnection," stated TIM in a prepared release. And further north, O2 Germany has signed off its deal with D2 Vodafone, and it should have a similar arrangement with T-Mobile AG before the end of the year. These follow in the wake of the recent interoperability announcement between Finnish operators Radiolinja Oy and Sonera Corp. (Nasdaq: SNRA) (see Finland Fixes MMS Interop). While the main issue in such instances is usually the technical interoperability of systems from different vendors, the mobile operators are really only grappling with the business arrangements related to billing and mediation before allowing intercarrier picture messaging, as the vendors have already made their products interoperable.
"It's a commercial issue for the carriers regarding picture messaging, and these are very important deals for the growth of the market. Allowing picture messages to be sent between carrier networks within any country is vital to the operators and the growth of the market," says Barclay Clibborn, MMS solutions product manager at messaging vendor Tecnomen Corp.. [Ed note: Yes, that's his real name.] Tecnomen's multimedia messaging service center (MMSC) is deployed by Radiolinja and by another Finnish operator, Suomen 2G Oy, which is due to finalize interoperability agreements with Sonera and Radiolinja any day now. Not that this is the end of the technical issues. Oh no. Clibborn says that, while current MMS gateways can deal with messages between deployed systems and deliver picture messages to the current slew of camera phones, "as new terminals come onto the market with more feature-rich MMS clients, and the manufacturers' MMSCs become more sophisticated, so more technical testing will be required. It's an ongoing process." The next wave of products that Clibborn expects Tecnomen to be testing with its systems are handsets that can capture and send video clips. Anything that helps promote greater use of data services is vital for the long-term financial health of the mobile operators, says Analysys senior analyst Katrina Bond. She says fewer than one third of people with GPRS handsets are users of GPRS services, and carriers need to do everything possible to promote data services as voice revenues decline due to price pressure and stagnant subscriber levels (see Europe's Stagnant, Says Analysys). Mass market use of multimedia messaging services are crucial to the operators' plans to grow ARPUs and derive greater levels of revenue from non-voice services. — Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung