Mobile Erotica and the North American Market

Alex Henderson

From VCRs to DVDs to the Internet, the adult entertainment industry has been quick to profit from technological innovation. The mobile/wireless sector is no exception; mobile erotica or "cell-phone porn" has been quite popular in Europe — and now, North America is turning out to be an important player as well.

"The real progress in the North American adult mobile market is even younger than five or six years, really," explained Q Boyer, director of public relations for TopBucks Mobile. "You can trace it back to the release of the iPhone in 2007. Up to that point, the adult mobile market in the U.S. was largely theoretical, more of a potential market than an actual one."

mobile erotica or 'cell-phone porn' has been quite popular in Europe — and now, North America is turning out to be an important player as well

In the mid-2000s, Europe's success with mobile erotica had a lot to do with the fact that European telecom giants like Vodaphone, Telefonica and Wind were willing to offer explicit content on-deck, while their North American counterparts were not.

Dr. Windsor Holden, principle analyst for the U.K.-based market research firm Juniper Research, said: "Operators and service providers (in North America) remain far more cautious about deploying adult services on the mobile than, say, those in Western Europe. In part, this is due to regulators which are comparatively conservative — indeed, proactively so — and vociferous pressure groups which are vehemently opposed to any new distribution channels for adult content."

Holden recalled that in early 2007, Telus (one of Canada's top mobile operators) started offering explicit mobile erotica on-deck. But after only three weeks, Telus gave up adult content because of considerable pressure from the Catholic Church — and Telus' experience wasn't lost on American carriers like Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility. Mobile operators in the United States concluded that if offering mobile erotica on-deck was problematic in Canada, there was no reason to believe that the U.S. would be any different.

"On-deck, all you're going to get (in North America) for the foreseeable future will be bikini level, quite frankly," Holden said. "Off-deck is another matter."

And according to Holden, the growth potential for explicit off-deck mobile erotica is huge in North America.

It is important to understand the difference between on-deck and off-deck content; on-deck (or "on-portal") content is obtained directly from the mobile carrier's portal, whereas off-deck (or "off-portal") content is obtained from another source (such as an Internet website), but can also be viewed on a mobile device.

J.C., vice president of business development for Night Mobile, said that thanks to the rapid growth of off-deck adult content, North America has emerged as a major force in mobile erotica.

"Europe definitely dominated the market five years ago, when the carriers were providing direct services from their portals," J.C. explained. "However, two events revolutionized mobile porn: 3G and Apple."

"With high-speed broadband availability, users could stream entire movies or at least complete scenes straight from the Internet without any interference from the mobile carriers," J.C. said. "Apple's introduction of the iPhone and iPod and its dominance in the USA — together with affordable 3G plans — meant that Europe and the rest of the world were simply left standing, as the off-deck market stormed the States. Now, Europe — and in particular the U.K., Germany, France and Spain, to name a few — are playing catch up."

"As far as being open and liberated, I still think the U.S. and Canada have a long way to go before they can match the U.K., for example, in terms of on-deck porn; in fact, the North Americans haven't even left the starting block," J.C. added. "But off-deck is another story, and as I said, the iPhone has revolutionized the off-deck market — ironic really seeing as Apple makes every effort to restrict what content is used in their app store but have no way of restricting Night Mobile's iPhone and Smartphone mobile empire."

A big difference between the mobile erotica market in North America and the mobile erotica market in Europe has to do with SMS billing, which is quite common overseas.

"The biggest challenge facing the adult mobile market within the U.S. has been — and likely will continue to be — the lack of SMS billing as an alternative for processing charges related to adult content," Boyer offered. "Many people — and until recently, I was one of them — are under the impression that the U.S. telecoms could allow SMS billing for adult materials but haven't done so out of concern about a potential public relations backlash if they were to do anything that appeared to 'legitimize' pornography. My understanding in speaking to multiple attorneys about this issue, however, is that even if American telecoms were willing to permit SMS billing to take place as a matter of policy, they cannot implement such a policy as a matter of federal law."

"This goes back to the days of audiotext phone sex services and a law that was passed to prevent companies from billing phone sex charges directly to consumers' phone bills," Boyer added. "Evidently, those same statutes serve to prohibit SMS-based charges for adult content as well."

But where there is a will, there is a way — and Boyer believes that the mobile adult market will continue to grow and expand in North America regardless of SMS issues.

"I don't think the lack of SMS is an insurmountable obstacle at all," he said. "We've found that consumers are more than willing to reach for their credit card and fill out an online signup form using their mobile devices if that's what they need to do in order to gain access to a quality mobile porn site."

"Don't get me wrong — I'd love to see SMS billing, and I'd love for our customers to have that convenient an option," Boyer asserted. "But if it never becomes an option, that fact won't significantly slow the growth of the North American adult mobile market."

Asked if there were any major differences between the U.S. and Canada when it comes to the acceptance of mobile erotica, Holden replied "Not a great deal of difference, to be honest," while Boyer said "It sure appears that the Canadian market has more in common with the U.S. market than it does with the European mobile market. We're seeing a strong increase in mobile traffic from Canada, and the operating systems and device types closely mirror the mix that we see in our U.S.-based mobile traffic metrics."

Ultimately, the mobile erotica market in North America will be driven by supply and demand. The use of mobile devices certainly isn't decreasing in either the U.S. or Canada, and as mobile technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, adult entrepreneurs will look for new ways to cash in.

"We can definitely see a major trend towards Smartphones," J.C. said. More people than ever are using their phones as their primary surfing tool. This means that over the next five years, the numbers of mobile surfing could triple — if not more — as manufacturers choose to follow Apple's model."

Reflecting on the North American mobile erotica market, Boyer says that his research has led him to believe that the growth in the next five years is going to be truly staggering.

"I think we can rely on the market to be driven by consumer demand, and I expect consumer demand for mobile erotica to be quite high," Boyer concluded.