3G launches with a whimper, not a bang

After the prolonged furore of 3's launch, what does it really have to offer business users?

After the prolonged furore of 3's launch, what does it really have to offer business users?

With the launch of Hutchison's 3, the UK finally has a third generation mobile network. We have been hearing about 3G and what it will do for us for so long now that it no longer feels like news. Any surprises are likely to be of the negative kind, as the initial launch was never going to live up to the hype.

The manner of the launch reflected this. Having missed the planned pre-Christmas launch, 3 was so keen to stick to its once-in-a-millennium three-laden date that it declared the launch even though there were no phones to sell.

All that was actually launched was the opportunity to pre-register an interest in buying a phone, which had been possible for months.

It is easy to sit on benches and throw stones. Hutchison UK has more or less kept to its schedule, and has rolled out a functioning network based on standard technology and equipment that was largely untried. 3's more established competitors are much more cautious, with launch dates still far in the future and little by way of real commitment.

But that said, what is in it for the business customer? To start with, not much. There is a well-developed school of thought which says that high-end premium products should be sold first to business customers and then "trickle down" to the consumer market. It worked with PCs, fax machines and GSM. Business customers have the money, and provided that the benefits are there, can be persuaded into the market by a convincing business case.

Here, though, there appears to be little intention to target the sober business customer. Business benefits are few and far between.

There are no products aimed at the road-warrior kind of business customer or blue-collar mobile workforce. The devices are multimedia oriented phones offering access to cute entertainment-led content. There is, as yet, no laptop card, and no ability to use the phone as a wireless modem.

Tariffs are also consumer-oriented rather than business-oriented, with all the packages charging for data services per event (message or picture) rather than per megabyte.

Coverage is still pretty ropey. 3 has effectively launched a regional service, aimed at covering 50% of the population. A quick check of the map shows how little of the country needs to be served to achieve this.

The rest is to be covered via 3's roaming agreement with O2, but it is less than clear exactly what that will mean for users. What happens to calls and data sessions when users move out of 3 coverage and into an area only covered by O2? What happens when they move back into 3 coverage?

The answer is complicated, and may depend on a number of parameters, including which handset is involved. But it is fair to say that seamless, in-call or in-session handover does not happen.

In any case, if you were relying on national roaming to deliver data service coverage, you should know that only one of 3's handsets offers GPRS. NEC handsets will deliver 3's higher data rates when the 3 network is available, but will not let you roam on to O2's GPRS coverage when it is not. International roaming is considerably more limited than the other network operators' offerings too.

It will not stay like this forever. The best brains of the wireless industry have been working for years on solving interoperability problems between 2G and 3G, and they will make it work in the end.

Unless 3 is swamped by entertainment-driven consumer users, it will introduce some business-oriented tariffs, and the electronics industry already has plans for 3G laptop cards.

Coverage will get better, and the number of roaming destinations will increase fairly rapidly. Even the data rate will improve as operators get the hang of managing a loaded network. Eventually, the coverage and capacity of the 3G networks will make them the workhorses that enable a wide range of data network bearers, services and applications, some of which will be of keen interest to business users. Just don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, many narrowband data applications can easily be run on GPRS, especially if client and server software is built with the limitations of the carrier's characteristics in mind.

Orange still offers high-speed circuit switched data as an alternative to GPRS, which misses out on the always-on connectionless characteristics and associated tariff arrangements, but guarantees no-fuss dial-up data speeds over a public cellular network.

Public access wireless Lans may not offer anything like 3G's public outdoor coverage, but it is not that hard for a road warrior to find a coffee bar that has it - in the major centres anyway. And failing that, there's always dial-up. Modem cable, anyone?

Jeremy Green is an analyst at Ovum

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