Verizon SMS service links U.S., Latin America

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Verizon Wireless Inc. on Tuesday brought U.S. mobile users together with more than a million potential friends and gaming opponents in Latin America through a set of offerings developed by a Brazil-based mobile services provider.

The services from Blah, a subsidiary of Telecom Italia Mobile SpA, are based on SMS (Short Message Service) technology. Initially they will include private text messaging in English, Spanish and Portuguese as well as Futblah, a one-on-one soccer game. Blah currently offers those services and others through mobile operators in six Latin American countries, and Verizon customers will be able to interact with people in those countries as well as in their own communities and across the U.S., said Richard Vile, director of messaging for Verizon Wireless.

Blah lets users set up a profile with a name and personal description, which can be real or fictional, and be set up with another participant with a matching profile anywhere Blah offers its service, Vile said. The matching user can accept or reject the introductory message.

Verizon made the service available nationwide Tuesday for customers who opt in. Most of the current Verizon Wireless phones, which operate on a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network, support SMS, according to Vile.

Verizon, based in Bedminster, New Jersey, sees the service as most promising in the 18-34 age group and initially will market it to young Hispanic customers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Miami. After it takes off in that group, it should start to catch on for messaging among a variety of English-speaking customers in the U.S., he added.

Blah, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, first launched its service in 2001 and now offers it through carriers in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay. Service will begin soon in Argentina, said Federico Pisani, chief executive officer of Blah. In addition to messaging and games, its services in Latin America include phone personalization features, such as ringtones and wallpaper, and information and music that users can download or have sent to them.

For all the services combined, Blah has more than 2 million customers. More than 1 million use messaging, Pisani said. Most messaging takes place within countries, but there is a lot of cross-border exchange in some areas, such as between Brazil and Chile, he said.

Verizon customers must sign up for Verizon's TXT Messaging service to use Blah. TXT Messaging costs US$0.10 to send a message and $0.02 to receive one. There are also bundled monthly plans that start at $2.99 for 100 messages. Prepaid customers can send and receive messages for $0.05 each.

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