From the Boston Globe --
By Peter J. Howe
The lure of pornography helped drive the mass-market adoption of
videocassette recorders, satellite television, and the World Wide Web.
Now, history could repeat itself in the world of cellphones --
specifically, the newest generation of cellphones, which sport
high-resolution color screens and connections to super-fast data
networks that can stream X-rated photos and film clips straight to the
Adults-only wireless websites have begun sprouting in many regions,
including Europe and Australia, that are generally a year or more
ahead of the United States in adopting advanced wireless
technology. In Britain, the profusion of adult sites and the interest
in them has forced the six major British wireless carriers to develop
ways to block people younger than 18 from getting access.
As implausible as the idea of trying to look at pornographic images on
a screen of only three square inches may seem, some industry analysts
think a combination of novelty, and especially privacy -- unlike a
computer, a phone can be used almost anywhere -- make cellphones an
appealing way for some to view pornography.
Almost all of the content available today via cellphone is found on
foreign websites. US cellphone users with Web access plans can already
download images -- as explicit as anything that's found on the
Internet -- without dialing an overseas number. They simply use the
Web browsers in their cellphones. Usually, the sites offer free
Playboy Enterprises Inc., which recently added Spain and Portugal to
the dozen other countries where it is licensing adult content for
cellphones, says it hopes to reach the US market within the next
US wireless carriers already offer pictorial and digital content,
including television-style news clips, and roughly one-fifth of the
171 million US cellphone owners carry handsets that can receive
full-color digital photos and video.
"New technology is often brought forward and driven forward by adult
services, and I don't think mobile phone content will be different,"
Chris Lane, director of the Australian cellphone carrier Optus Mobile
Partners, said last month as the carrier outlined plans to add an
adult channel on its wireless portal in the next six to eight months.
Adam Zawel, a research analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston,
recently estimated that one "phone erotica" website run from Britain
is getting more than 300 million "hits" per month, including visits
from some US cellphone owners, who have learned about the service
largely by word-of-mouth.
The site says it offers more than 3,000 images and short video clips
formatted for display on a cellphone, plus erotic fiction that
visitors download in 80- to 100-word snippets.
For now, the service is free as its owner attempts to drive up traffic
as a way to prove to the phone companies that a potential paying
Zawel estimates the annual market for "wireless adult content" will
reach $1 billion globally by 2008, including $90 million in the United
Although $90 million sounds significant, it would represent only 0.1
percent of current annual revenues for the largest US wireless
carriers: Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless LLC, Nextel
Communications Inc., and Sprint PCS. It would represent just 2 percent
of the total projected US spending on adult content in all media,
Pornography is not a revenue source that US carriers are rushing to
wrap their brand names around, though.
A Sprint Corp. spokesman, Mark J. Elliott, said its "PCS Vision"
wireless data service "adheres to the standards of acceptability for
general TV audiences. We do not endorse, support, or affiliate
ourselves with any entities providing adult content."
Alexa G. Kaufman, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless --
with 46 million subscribers, the biggest US carrier -- said, "We
don't have any intention to partner with adult content providers."
At number-two Verizon Wireless, spokeswoman J. Abra Degbor declined to
Verizon is 45 percent owned by Vodafone Group PLC, a British
multinational carrier that has begun offering adult content in markets
outside the United States.
In Britain, carriers including Vodafone, Virgin Mobile, Orange, and
T-Mobile have agreed to block adults-only content from subscribers
unless they have demonstrated that the person who owns the phone
associated with a specific phone number is over age 18, which would
not keep minors from using adults' phones to visit adults-only sites.
Carriers in Britain acted following pressure from national
telecommunications regulators and groups such as the Children's
Charities Coalition for Internet Safety, all of which expressed
concerns about young people having easy access to hard-core
Like all carriers, however, Cingular, Sprint, and others would profit
indirectly from porn-driven wireless data traffic in the same way that
landline Internet service providers depend on interest in adult
content to enlarge their customer base.
Getting into the business of directly offering and billing for adult
content could be a political and public-relations minefield for
image-conscious wireless brands.
"This is obviously not a development that would thrill anyone with
religious sensibilities or secular sensibilities who wants to protect
some modicum of human decency and respect in our society," said the
Rev. Diane C. Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council
Carriers might never directly promote adult offerings. But they are
also unlikely to actively block or censor them.
Cingular's Kaufman said: "We do believe that the type of content
customers access through their wireless services is a matter of
personal choice. We also believe that parents are the best line of
defense in protecting children from objectionable content. They should
actively monitor their children's use of the cellphone, both for voice
calls and data services."
Peter J. Howe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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