The sky is the limit for Italian mobile services

Italians have to go a long way to escape the mobile phone. A very long way.

Roberto Vittori, the Italian astronaut who began an eight-day mission to the International Space Station Thursday, probably thought he would be safely out of reach there, but cellular operator Wind SpA is planning to send text messages from its subscribers to him as he orbits 220 miles above the earth.

GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones don’t (yet) work in space, so the messages will be received by a phone on the ground, transcribed and sent over the space station’s own data links.

Although Wind’s service is little more than a gimmick, it does show how Italians will use their phones to link anyone to anyone or anything else with their mobile phones.

Take Riellonet, for example. An experimental service announced this week by Telecom Italia Mobile SpA (TIM) and Riello SpA, it allows subscribers to remotely control their home heating and air conditioning systems by sending them an SMS (Short Message Service) message. It will eventually be possible to monitor them from a mobile phone, too, the companies said.

There are more mobile phones in use in Italy than there are homes: 49 million of them, for a population of 58 million, according to IDC analyst Alessandro Lorenzelli. Many Italians have more than one phone (Lorenzelli has three), so the actual number of users is less: probably between 40 million and 43 million, he said. Nevertheless, that’s an awful lot of mobile phone users.

The vast majority of them are connected on consumer-oriented prepaid tariffs, Lorenzelli said, meaning that the four network operators in Italy’s nearly saturated and fiercely price-competitive market are concentrating on developing new consumer services to increase their revenue.

“Operators are not really pushing business, they are all pushing consumer services,” he said.

With voice revenue stagnating, operators have been using SMS to boost profits. There is now a huge variety of services available by SMS, including location information, chat and an online matchmaking service.

With many of the possibilities of text messaging services already explored, the next focus of this push, for operators like TIM, is the GSM Association’s M-Services initiative. This is an attempt to standardize the screen formats and functions of new phones, to make developing multimedia services such as MMS (Multimedia Messaging Services) easier.

Although few multimedia phones are available yet, TIM has already launched its first service, an online photo album that can be viewed from a mobile phone. Announced in November, the service will allow users to send a message containing a link to a page of their album. On phones with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) or MMS capability, following this link will display the photo on the screen.

There are messaging services aimed at businesses, too. For