Imagine being able to pay for a song on the jukebox, buy a bag of groceries or gain admission to a sports arena by simply waving your phone by a machine.

With consumers in Asia and Europe already using their mobile phones to pay for soda and parking fees, the long discussed concept of the wireless wallet could be slowly creeping closer to reality in the United States.

In countries such as Sweden, Ireland and the United Kingdom drivers can avoid putting coins in a parking meter by simply sending a text message on their mobile phone.

About two million customers of Japan’s NTT DoCoMo Inc <9437.T> can already use mobile phones with built-in debit cards to pay about 20,000 merchants such as restaurants and supermarkets.

DoCoMo, which U.S. telephone carriers often look to for inspiration for new services, also plans for customers to use their phones in place of train tickets. It also invested in a credit card company as part of its bet on mobile commerce.

U.S. companies have been quiet about mobile commerce since hype about wireless wallets was deflated when the bubble burst in 2000. Many are still skeptical, but some are warming to the idea again amid U.S. and overseas developments.

“The (mobile commerce) discussion has more validity now. The technology and the business models are evolving,” said Chris Bierbaum a business development executive at Sprint , the No. 3 U.S. operator.

The popularity of music ringtones is one sign consumers are ready to use phones for buying more than calls. Music labels now see wireless as a key market after U.S. consumers spent $223 million on ringtones in 2004 according to Yankee Group.

And as phones — being built with everything from video players to cameras — add even more features, soon the music industry may not be alone in seeing wireless as a lucrative alternative market to sell their products.

“You will continue to see more and more industries come to that conclusion,” said Peter Ritcher chief financial officer of Cingular Wireless, the No. 1 U.S. mobile service.

By Sinead Carew

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