Portals grapple for wireless real estate

Wireless devices - mobile phones, personal digital assistants and the like - are shaping up to be the newest battleground in the Canadian online portal industry....

Wireless devices – mobile phones, personal digital assistants and the like – are shaping up to be the newest battleground in the Canadian online portal industry.

Major brands, such as MSN.ca, Yahoo.ca, Canada.com and Sympatico-Lycos.ca, have begun to grapple for wireless real estate – shoring up partnerships with carriers such as Clearnet, Bell Mobility and Rogers AT&T Wireless – in an effort to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be the next big advertising medium.

With their recognized brands and well-established user base, the portals say they’re uniquely positioned to take advantage of the budding wireless data services market.

‘We’ve got a great opportunity,’ says Alex Nanos, Canadian product manager for MSN Mobile, a service that launched last month to provide MSN.ca’s information services to wireless users.

In conjunction with the rollout of MSN Mobile, MSN.ca announced that Bell Mobility, Clearnet and Rogers AT&T Wireless plan to make the service available to their customers this quarter.

According to International Data Corporation (Canada), 95% of digital cell phone users will have access to wireless data services – including stock alerts, news headlines, traffic reports and weather forecasts – by 2004.

As technology advances, analysts say mobile e-commerce applications – such as wireless banking and mobile ticketing – will emerge, along with location-based services that deliver targeted messages to consumers as they pass specific retail locations.

Other than the early adopter and teen demographics, the target market for such services is pretty much wide open. A spokesperson for MSN Mobile says it largely depends on the customer base of the wireless companies themselves, since they control the distribution channel.

Yahoo! Canada, which was one of the first content providers to partner with Bell Mobility this spring, is planning to bring its global experience in wireless-advanced markets like Europe and Japan to the table in Canada, says Mark Rubinstein, managing director of Yahoo! Canada.

‘A substantial number of Canadians will get online not through traditional wired means, but through wireless – whether that’s a cell phone, PDA or some other kind of device,’ he says. ‘Because we’ve been living with that reality globally, we may well find we’re going to be able to provide a lot of guidance and experience.’

Chris Potter, a research associate at The Convergence Consulting Group in Toronto, says portals that can strike a deal with wireless network operators are in a good position compared to their upstart brethren.

And while there’s not a lot of revenue to be had at this stage, he says players who can claim their place on the browser will be poised to extract revenue when it does begin to flow.

The Convergence Consulting Group projects there will be more than 8.5 million wireless subscribers in Canada by the end of this year.