Italian cell titan profits by offering callers line to God

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[Rome, Italy] Call it a direct line to God. Italian subscribers now have daily religious and inspirational messages sent directly to their cellphones.

When Italy's largest cellular-phone operator unveiled the service with the blessings of the Vatican in January, it caused its share of snickers among the general public. But a month into the program, Telecom Italia's mobile-phone unit TIM has had the last laugh. Thousands of users have rushed to sign up for the program to receive messages in categories such as "Gospel of the Day," "Prayer of the Day" and "Saint of the Day."

TIM, which already controls about 57% of the Italian cellphone market, said it sees the program as a new revenue stream from existing clients interested in added service, and also as a reason for the faithful to switch from TIM from rival cellphone companies.

The company would not say how much money had been brought in by the new service, but a spokeswoman said "this is more successful than we expected at first."

inspiration on the way

Each message is sent to users' cellphones preceded by four quick beeps to alert clients that inspiration is on the way. One recent day in February, the "Prayer of the Day" message read, "Lord, help me to control my desires and to desire what is good." An earlier message read, "Dear God, help me give freely of myself without expecting anything in return"-a message not taken to heart by TIM, which charges users around 15 cents per message.

The "Gospel of the Day" service provides a different scripture reading each day; the "Saint of the Day" service identifies one of the patron saints of that day, along with a brief description of his or her life and work.

The service resonates well in a country with both a high population of Catholics and cellphone users. In Italy, 82.5% of people over 18 have a cellphone, the second highest percentage in the world behind Israel, with 85.3% (see chart).

TIM's major rivals-Omnitel Pronto Italia and Wind-say they have no immediate plans to offer similar prayer-related services to their subscribers.

News of the inspirational messages was relayed to TIM subscribers and sent to churches and religious groups and newspapers, then spread through word of mouth.

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