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Cold, Hard Facts Straight From the Cellphone

As snow, ice storms and bitter cold raged across the West and Plains states and then the East Coast last week, a flurry of cellphone users tapped into online weather forecasts to get the latest.

Wireless weathercasting is all the rage. In the last three months of 2006, says M:Metrics, a wireless-market–research firm, an average of 13 million people accessed weather services either by SMS (short message service) or through a wireless browser. More than 2 million accessed the services every day, and 7 million accessed them one to three times a month.

That tops usage of wireless news and sports services by more than a million users a month, according to M:Metrics.

Broadcasters are moving to fill the need for weather services to cellphones by teaming with weather-content providers, as well as channeling their own local content, to provide branded services that are aimed at cellphones.

Internet Broadcasting Systems, which produces more than 70 Websites for stations nationwide, has a strategy that will deliver weather, news and sports to mobile devices. Coming soon, the service will be offered by stations that reach half the U.S. population.

Driven By Technology

Increasing technical capabilities in cellphones, mobile computers, Blackberries and even iPods are driving the record usage, says Kanishka Agarwal, VP of mobile content at Telephia, a market-research firm specializing in telecommunications and new media. Broadcasters are learning how to address the growing demand and are rolling out services to tap into it.

Says Agarwal, “Weather is the second-most-important data service for wireless users. Only wireless e-mail tops it.” He estimates that about 10.2 million cellphone subscribers regularly access the weather.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, revenues for all mobile data services passed $6.5 billion for the first half of 2006. Revenue numbers for wireless weather services are hard to come by, but analysts say weather is the top information service downloaded or referenced by customers.

The easing of technical restrictions has helped foster growth. In January 2006, NBC Weather Plus tapped MyWeather LLC to handle weather content. MyWeather VP Irene Cash says company technology recognizes coding for 8,000 different kinds of cellphones or other mobile devices, so a user’s graphics will match up.

NBC Weather Plus has also worked with mobile-content firm Zingy to adapt its content specifically for Cingular and Sprint customers. And in the next few months, Weather Plus will also begin providing content to MediaFLO, a new live mobile TV service operated by Qualcomm that will be available to Verizon customers, and later to Cingular users. Jeff Thein, Weather Plus executive producer, says the MediaFLO product is “the first application I’ve seen that brings live television to a mobile device.”

Consumers obviously want weather news. Between Jan. 11 and Jan. 15, as the severe weather crawled across the nation’s midsection, views of Weather Channel Interactive’s mobile Web pages spiked as much as 200% over the previous week’s page views.

No More Bad Old Days

There have been some issues in moving to mobile devices, but those were the bad old days. Says Louis Gump, VP, mobile, for Weather Channel, “Five years ago, we had to write individual code for each handset out there.” That work was “excruciating,” he says. Now most cellphone models use common technologies for messaging, such as SMS, and for Web browsing, such as the SHTML format.

Other broadcasters have moved to provide their own stream of wireless weather content.

At WRAL Raleigh, N.C., for example, wireless weather services are available on Sprint and Verizon, via News Over Wireless, a division of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns the station. Clear Channel’s Energize Digital Media adapts content from 54 affiliates to many formats, including Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the open international standard for wireless applications. The company can make the data searchable by ZIP code.

WeatherNews Americas Inc. works with CBS to deliver local news, weather and sports from 10 stations to Sprint customers. And last month, Accu Weather, a major aggregator, began offering wireless providers a WAP-based, free-to-consumers service that uses downloadable station-generated content. The service relies on advertising revenues split between the carrier and stations.

Someday, wireless carriers will want their own weather services.

“They are working hard not to become commoditized, dumb pipes,” says Telephia’s Agarwal. “They are becoming media companies.”

Additional reporting by Glen Dickson and P.J. Bednarski