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Connecting New Zealand with the rest of the world

01 Nov 08

Multimedia messaging services (MMS) has not had an easy start in New Zealand, nor indeed the rest of the world. One could say the technology has turned out to be a late developer since the first commercial MMS was launched in Norway six years ago.

For those less familiar, MMS is a mobile telephone standard for sending messages that include multimedia objects such as images, audio, rich text and video. MMS is an extension of the SMS standard, allowing longer messages and using WAP to displaythe content.

Coined ‘picture messaging’ and ‘photo messaging’ respectively by the first two New Zealand carriers who introduced the service in 2004 – Vodafone and Telecom New Zealand – the consumer uptake has been slow, but is undoubtedly on the increase.

Some of the main obstacles to wider MMS adoption have been:

  • Lack of inter-carrier operability: In the past, one could only send MMS to mobile phone users with the same carrier, but friends on other networks received an SMS notification and had to download the message from a website, which results in a compromised user experience. Nowadays Kiwis can send and receive each other’s MMS.

  • Lack of international operability: International MMS is in its infancy in New Zealand. Only one carrier currently offers international MMS, but only to one selected partner in Australia. This means friends overseas will not receive an image, but an SMS notification instead. Another consequence is that we cannot use MMS when travelling overseas as our phones roam in foreign networks that do not have an agreement in place with our home carrier.

  • Lack of MMS-equipped mobile phones: Many mobile devices still do not support the technology. Although Nokia and other manufacturers have started integrating native MMS clients, highly popular smartphones such as the iPhone 3G still do not have a native client installed.

  • Lack of end-user awareness: Many mobile phone users are oblivious to the existence of MMS and what it entails.

Despite the absence of true MMS on the iPhone and other obstacles, MMS traffic, in general, continues to grow organically with 30% of the subscriber population sending at least one MMS per month in many markets.

In the US, MMS is today more common than in any other country in the world. One of the main enablers is that most domestic carriers support MMS between their networks. In addition, over 70% of mobile devices in the US will support MMS by end of 2008, and last but not least, most carriers bundle MMS together with SMS, phone calls and data volumes in a monthly cap.

Considering the US case, it is difficult to understand why Kiwis still cannot send an MMS with a photo of their first grandchild to relatives in the US, although text messages can be received and sent from almost every part of the world.

Carriers’ commitment is still evident, as MMS remains part of the current 3G networks, and will be carried over to the proposed 4G network infrastructure. Although being closely related to SMS, MMS and SMS gateway technology is distinctively different, and gateways cannot forward both types of messages.

Despite efforts to delegate the development of technical MMS standards to the OMA (Open Mobile Alliance), and the GSM Association, true global MMS is beyond most people’s reach but not our imagination. In actual fact, its true appeal lies in international photo transmission, as we can finally share our memorable moments with friends and relatives overseas.

To help MMS unfold its true potential, MMS has to become just as international as SMS. This requires more international agreements between carriers, as well as international hubs that connect us with the rest of the world.  

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