There’s No Place Like Home

Why American teens don’t want the new cell phones.

The past year was a thoroughly rotten one for America’s wireless industry, stung by price wars and tumbling demand. Pretty much everyone who wants a cell phone already has one, and they’re none too eager to buy new $300-$400 handsets simply for the luxury of a sleeker faceplate or a tidier address book. The only way for the mobile market to grow is to get users psyched about data services, such as downloading games, transmitting pictures, or the Short Messaging Service, the wireless equivalent of instant messaging. Which is why T-Mobile hired Catherine Zeta-Jones to hawk its next-generation phones and why Verizon’s running those Euro-cool “Hello, Moto!” commercials that trumpet cell phones as go-anywhere gaming machines.

Outside the United States, data’s been a mobile hit since the late 1990s, and nowhere more so than Japan, the coal-mine canary of wireless hip. The mobile data pioneer, NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode service, claims more than 35 million Japanese users, many of whom prefer playing Tiger Woods Golf on their handsets to actually speaking into them. I-mode and its equivalents in South Korea, Singapore, and Scandinavia depend heavily on teen subscribers—in Japan, for example, the pimple-ridden set accounts for 70 percent of i-mode’s revenues. But unless American youth culture undergoes a massive upheaval over the next few months, the appetite of stateside teens for mobile data is bound to disappoint, regardless of Zeta-Jones’ pitchwoman wiles.

That’s not a curmudgeonly knock on U.S. kids as techno-ignorant rubes. Rather, American teens are spoiled when it comes to online access. In Japan, for example, Internet access charges are still largely by the minute for PC users. I-mode flourishes in part because those high prices prevent Japanese teens from using their PCs to spend time online. Though the percentage of Japanese homes with Internet access recently broke the 50 percent mark—compared to more than 60 percent in the United States—the dearth of flat-fee pricing plans means that Japanese families have to be economical with their domestic hook-ups. By contrast, competitive ISP rates mean American teens don’t have to settle for a cell phone’s tiny screen, crude graphics, and sluggish download speeds.

The primacy of home Internet access in the United States has led to the sub-par debut of Short Messaging Service on these shores. This year, 1.5 billion SMS notes will zing through American air—which sounds impressive until you hear that Europe averages 30 billion messages a month. The killjoy is the popularity of PC-based alternatives such as AOL Instant Messaging. If you’re an American teen who already logs onto your PC for 90 minutes a day, how much more IM-ing can you stand?

Even where Internet access can be obtained abroad on the cheap, it’s relatively rare for non-American parents to outfit Junior’s room with his own computer. The teen bedroom cocoon is primarily a Yankee extravagance, bolstered by our nation’s suburban, supersized ways. Non-American teens are less likely to spend their after-school hours lounging at home. They’ll more often be found in a public place—a shopping district, a park, a bench outside McDonald’s—with their heads buried in handsets as they type out SMS notes or play FIFA World Cup.

Transportation plays a role, too. Fiddling with an i-mode is perhaps the pre-eminent time waster for Japanese kids on trains, buses, and subways. Americans in the same age bracket are far more likely to be behind the wheel and to know about subways only from movies about New York City.

American moms and dads are mobile data’s final, perhaps insurmountable hurdle. Abroad, parents are more willing to stomach the data tab—after all, it’s cheaper than buying a second PC and paying for Internet access. In the United States, the kid’s cell phone is more likely to be purchased on the pretense that it’s for emergencies. And though parents will usually tolerate the standard teen yakking that goes along with peace of mind, they blanch when the bill reads “Download of Ms. Pac-Man: $4.99.” On top of the $1,500 Dell set-up, the $24-a-month dial-up account, and the $35 wireless voice bill, that might break the camel’s back. Not to mention the American wireless industry’s hopes for a data-driven savior.