Another Euro-US divide: cellphones
On different sides of the Atlantic, consumers use their telephones very differently.

March 14, 2005: 11:11 AM EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europeans and Americans differ in their language, automobiles, sports and - less obvious but no less important -- the way they use telephones.

Choices made by governments and companies can mean that teenagers in Athens, Georgia, talk on their fixed line phone for four hours a day while those in Athens, Greece, are sending four text messages on their mobile phones.

The European Commission in Brussels is proud of its role in helping promote a uniform telephone standard across the European Union. The Federal Communications Commission in Washington is proud of its role in letting the market decide.

Europe touts the broad use of the GSM standard as a measure of success. It is now used in more than 100 countries around the world and has ushered in sophisticated multimedia telephone service in many countries.

The GSM system exists in the United States but so do other, inconsistent systems, reflecting the U.S. policy of letting the market decide what technology to adopt.

"Wireless communications is by far the most competitive and innovative market in the Commission's purview," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last year.

An FCC report said American mobile users talk more and pay less than Europeans, citing it as "evidence that the U.S. market is effectively competitive" compared to Europe and Japan.

But eight of 10 European Union residents have mobile phone numbers while only six of 10 Americans do.

And Western Europe mobile operators pulled in $142 billion of revenue in 2004, compared to only $104 billion in the United States, according to Marta Munoz of Ovum a consulting firm in London.

But the United States is catching up. U.S. revenues grew at 11 percent, compared to only 9 percent for Western Europe, Munoz said.

Sputtering phones
Europe's single-standard GSM, which stands for 'global system of mobile communications' reaches a broader audience than America's multiple-standard system.

"You can't use every phone everywhere in the United States, so that puts a limitation on the end user," Munoz observed of the three incompatible American systems.

U.S. cell phones sputter and fail in an apartment near the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, a U.S. agency created to set consistent standards, and in ranch houses in the Los Angeles suburbs. A land line is a necessity.

Europeans can skip fixed lines altogether. Why bother? A GSM works nearly everywhere -- not just in houses, apartments and offices but at the bottom of a salt mine in Poland or on a wind-swept beach in County Donegal in northwest Ireland. The only real problem occurs on trains.

GSM includes the short messaging system (SMS), which works on every phone in Europe. Some Americans have SMS or BlackBerry Wireless, but not everyone.

Americans have made voicemail a way of life, where it often replaces the busy signal. A conversation can be supplanted by voice mail exchanges.

Europeans often skip voicemail, although they have sophisticated versions. Their mobiles automatically send a note saying "1 missed call," and tell them who called. People call back even without a message.

People often use SMS to leave messages, which have a "feel" different from voice mail, e-mail or snail mail.

Minute by minute
Telephone charges are primarily responsible for shaping the different telephone cultures in the U.S. and Europe.

"Price affects behavior with telephones, just as it does in every other aspect of life," said Dermot Glynn, chairman of Europe Economics, a consultancy based in London.

Europeans traditionally pay by the minute for both fixed lines and mobiles. Teenagers save money using cheap SMS messages instead of mobile calls, and pay nothing to receive. Those Americans who have SMS must pay to send and receive.

Americans traditionally paid a monthly flat rate for unlimited local calls on wireline. But now they can pay to extend that to the whole country, no matter how many calls or for how long.

As a result of the differing economics of the phone systems, there are different practices:

--Americans talk more. Flat-rate charges also helped get the Internet off the ground there because dial-up lines were not charged by the minute as in Europe.

--Europeans give out their cell phone number and put them on their business cards. They pay nothing to receive mobile phone calls in their home country.

--Americans traditionally have paid to receive mobile phone calls and tend to be less free about giving out cell phone numbers.

--American mobile subscribers get an allotment of minutes for a monthly fee and competition led to packages offering free nationwide calls nights and weekends.

--Europeans buy more limited packages -- especially geographically. Despite investigations by the European Commission mobile phone companies in Europe charge as much as one euro per minute to send or receive calls abroad.

--Europeans buy their own phones and easily switch phone companies or numbers by swapping tiny SIM card chips. So travelers sometimes buy inexpensive SIM cards to use abroad, receiving calls for free on a new, local number.

But a sun-seeking Briton in Spain is more cautious about making mobile calls than a sun-seeking Minnesotan in Florida.

Now, the advent of 3G high-speed data phones will soon create its own cultural changes -- likely to be different in the United States than Europe.

George Antunes, Political Science Dept
University of Houston; Houston, TX 77204
Voice: 713-743-3923  Fax: 713-743-3927
antunes at uh dot edu

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