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Revolution or Evolution?

The Internet has come to your wireless phone. Are you ready? Is phone ready?

The wireless Web has conquered Northern Europe and Japan. Can Hawaii be next? Many wireless companies in Honolulu think so, and they are predicting a totally connected Hawaii—a population reliant on cell phones for stocks, weather, e-mail and megabytes of information we aren’t supposed to be able to live without.

Kerri Lum, the marketing director for Verizon Wireless, says it’s all in the data.

“I think the data applications that we’re going to continue to add is probably the biggest growth area. People are going to be using the phones for much more than just voice calls, but things that they normally have to run back to the office or their homes to access on the computer.”

The market and revenue potential are vast. Already 40 percent of our population nationally subscribes to wireless services, Lum says, adding that the growth rate for wireless phone usage has been between 20 and 30 percent annually.

And if people will want to remain connected to the Net via their phones, usage can be expected to double. “We don’t have any statistics but people stay on the Internet for hours so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same thing here,” says Lum.

She believes the data revolution has in fact already begun thanks to the technically savvy business market and curious consumers who love Web access. (Currently, Verizon charges $6.95 extra for Internet access on its wireless phones.)

AT&T is also banking on Internet access being wireless’ key to its future. Gil Mendelson, the vice president and general manager for AT&T, says data and cheaper buckets of minutes means an explosion of usage. Thus far AT&T offers PocketNet, which offers subscribers unlimited Internet access. Sites such as ESPN, Travelocity and e-Bay are available with just keystrokes. According to Mendelson, this new service is being well received, but, citing competitive reasons, couldn’t give specific sales figures.

It all sounds promising but are the calls for a Web revolution premature? Joseph Donaldson, sales manager and director of marketing for Hawaiian Wireless, the only locally owned company in the state’s wireless universe, believes Web phone technology really hasn’t hit the big time yet and won’t for a while.

“The Web phone is kind of going through that period where there’s a lot of new things coming on board. It’s just that the phone can’t handle it all.”

In addition, Donaldson, who says that his company is taking its cues from its customers, not national ad campaigns, sees the push for Web access as an effort to acquire good, old-fashioned market share.

“This is one of the most confusing industries. Mainly because you do have a lot of players, especially here in Oahu,” says Donaldson. “This is the only place I know of where you have five carriers all in the same confined area and they’re all battling for the same customers.”

Whatever the motivation for Web access may be, Brian Malanaphy, a manager of Deloitte & Touche’s management solutions and services department, agrees that the wireless data revolution may have to wait a while. He says sooner or later, it will be a big thing, but not until prices come down and data more easily accessible.

“I think it’ll get pretty popular here when it gets less expensive,” he says. “And if they put the Palm operating system into a cell phone that has a big screen, I think that would be pretty huge.” Malanaphy, a data hound himself, downloads Web pages onto his Palm Pilot and looks at them offline using the AvantGo program.

Lum says they’re already working on it. “There’s one next step, which isn’t as well known now, but it’s out there,” she says, referring to merging PDAs with the Net and wireless phones. Maybe not exactly revolutionary, but a good start.

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