After a decade of false starts, the era of the electronic wallet may be finally dawning in the United States as mobile commerce moves beyond ringtones and wallpaper, a research firm said Tuesday.

While consumers in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have grown increasingly accustomed to making payments using their mobile phones, the practice is not common in the United States.

That will change beginning in 2007, said Dan Schatt, the senior analyst at Boston-based Celent who wrote the report. Celent predicts that the mobile commerce market in 2006 will be worth $24 billion, with Japan and South Korea accounting for nearly 60 percent of the total.

In 2008, that figure is expected to more than double to $55 billion. And with four out of five Americans subscribing to mobile service by then, the United States will take a larger share.

Driving the trend is the growing number of so-called 3G handsets, which carry more data. The number of 3G phones in the United States has finally topped 50 million, creating what Celent calls “critical mass.” The report came as mobile firms gathered at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona to plot the industry’s future (see Skype Moves to 3G Phones).

Exploit or Miss

The rise of mobile commerce represents a large opportunity for banks and carriers to either exploit or miss, Mr. Schatt said. If banks cede ground to upstarts like Google on mobile transactions, the forfeited profits could be huge.

More than $1 trillion of commerce is completed each year with a “ticket” size of $10 or less, according to Celent. The shifting landscape poses a similar challenge for carriers. Cooperation between banks and carriers is the solution, Mr. Schatt said.

“Anyone who bets against bandwidth is going to lose,” he said.

Startups will have a chance to profit as well. Companies that help banks and carriers stave off irrelevancy at the hands of Google or Paypal/Skype will find a ready market, said Mr. Schatt.

“There’s a place for technology that can insert itself in the ecosystem and help facilitate mobile commerce,” Mr. Schatt said.

Celent’s prediction that commerce over the handset is gaining traction in the United States jibes with what Vesta, a Portland, Oregon-based company that provides remote handset payment technology for carriers is seeing.

“This year we expect several implementations from major carriers,” said Matt Hall, Vesta’s vice president of business development.