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updated 10/12/2004 3:27:25 PM ET 2004-10-12T19:27:25

Alexa Miller, 17, got her first mobile phone — a snazzy purple one with a digital camera that hooks in — when she was 15. That was already behind most of her friends, teen-ager said.

Younger siblings will be armed with the wireless devices even earlier. Kim Miller, Alexa’s mother, said she’ll let her two younger daughters have mobile phones at 11 or 12 years old.

“It’s a good way to keep tabs on them,” Kim Miller said.

Somewhere, the CEOs of America’s largest wireless carriers are smiling.

Although they are not saying so outwardly, the wireless companies have become fixated on these young subscribers.

That’s because only 28 percent of 13- to 19-year-olds have a mobile device, according to IDC, a researcher based in Framingham, Mass.; penetration exceeds 50 percent in older groups. In addition, this group of teens and preteens — part of a demographic echo made of baby boomer offspring — is a population bubble on par with baby boomers themselves.

That presents a huge opportunity for subscriber growth as it begins to slow industrywide. Just as the Happy Meal created a generation of fast-food eaters, the camera phone with customized ringers and two-way text messaging aims to create a generation of heavy wireless users.

Consider that young adults outpace all other demographics in their use of recent innovations — embedded cameras, text messaging, ringers and video games.

According to Telephia Inc., a San Francisco-based market research firm, 57 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use two-way text messaging on their phones; more than double the number of baby boomers (37- to 55-year-olds) who text-message.

”(Young adults) are adopting it, and the carriers are realizing it,” said Kanishka Agarwal, director of mobile devices at Telephia. “You’re just following the level of rebellion. As the level increases, you have more feature-rich phones.”

The shift to youth-oriented products is driven partly by enticing demographics, partly by cultural shifts, experts said.

According to the 2000 census, 21.8 percent of the Kansas City metropolitan area’s 1.77 million people were between the ages of 5 and 19. That represents the largest faction of “Generation Y.”

“Right there, you’ve got some consumers,” said Ryan Burson, Missouri’s state demographer. “Those are the folks the marketers are going after.”

Not only is the youth segment large, but it also is technologically sophisticated.

That was the thought when Garmin Ltd. of Olathe, Kan. created its Geko line of devices last year. The global positioning system (GPS) hand-held allows users to play capture-the-flag-like games.

“I said, ‘How old are the kids that are using it?’ and they say 7, 6, 5 years old,” Garmin spokesman Pete Brumbaugh said. “Kids are different today. They grew up with the video games, the Internet.”

Mike McRoberts, a science teacher at Olathe Northwest High School, said his 13-year-old son uses a more complex Garmin GPS device when the family goes camping.

“He’ll be messing with it the whole time,” he said. “Unless you really know what you’re doing, you can’t screw it up.”

Along with consumers, the leaders of the suddenly youth-oriented tech and telecom firms are doing their own brand of market research at home.

Howard Handler, chief marketing officer of Virgin Mobile USA LLC, said his 12-year-old daughter took one of the company’s mobile phones and began programming it.

“Within minutes, she personalized it,” he said. “She didn’t need a user manual.”

Virgin Mobile is the “youth marketing arm” of Sprint PCS, said Jenny Stevens, a spokeswoman for the Overland Park-based wireless carrier. Virgin Mobile, which uses a pay-as-you-go plan, is a joint venture between Sprint PCS and U.K.-based Virgin Group.

With its MTV alliances, Virgin Mobile specifically targets 18- to 24-year-olds. Handler said that marketing will reach a younger audience in time as teens become the least-saturated subscriber group.

“The penetration upside is among 15- to 24-year-olds,” Handler said. “It becomes the most important electronic device that they own. It becomes who they are.”

Even 12-year-olds become a subscriber possibility as parents have turned to buying mobile phones for preteens as a safety mechanism, he said.

Market researchers such as Telephia have bought in to that trend. It plans to poll the 13- to 17-year-old demographic later this year to find out when kids begin using mobile phones, Agarwal said.

“If you ask me personally, I think 12 is a little too young,” he said. “I’m very curious to see what happens at 16, when kids get their driver’s license.”

James Ward, a Kansas City high school teacher, frowns on the idea.

The father of a 6-year-old son, Ward shakes his head at the thought of preteens armed with the phones.

“Society’s messed up,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine being a kid these days.”

© 2007 The Business Journal of Kansas City

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