In the next few months, users will be able to choose from four 3G data services, each of which has benefits and drawbacks that could affect your business
The arrival of the first 3G data services in the UK will lead to many enterprises evaluating the technology as a serious business option, so what is available now and how much does it cost?
The beginning of the year saw Vodafone launch its 3G data cards which are inserted into laptops to give users access over both GPRS and 3G networks. It offers a combination of networks because Vodafone's 3G coverage is only available to about a third of the UK population, mainly in big cities. Vodafone promises its 3G coverage will reach 50% of the population this autumn, but only 80% of the population will be able to access its 3G services by 2007.
Although 3G may be available in a particular area, it does not mean it will always be available. You might have to rely on GPRS, which is about seven times slower.
Vodafone is facing competition on price and availability from Orange, which went live with its 3G data card earlier this month.
Price is right
Orange's cheaper service is available to 65% of the UK population, again, mainly in the big cities. Both companies are selling data cards which offer a connection speed of up to 384kbps on 3G networks and slower speeds on GPRS networks.
The entry-level price of the Orange service is £10 a month for up to 7Mbytes of data sent or received, going up to £75 a month for up to 1Gbyte of data. This compares to Vodafone's entry-level price of £11.75 for 5Mbytes and top price of £100 for 500Mbytes of data.
Where users stray over their monthly data thresholds, all the Orange packages also charge less for each extra megabyte of data sent or received.
One advantage of the Vodafone service is that the company currently has more 3G international roaming agreements than Orange: Vodafone has 10 and Orange only had three at launch. As the world's largest telecoms operator, Vodafone also has many more GPRS roaming agreements than Orange.
For international business travellers therefore, Vodafone is so far the most convenient service.
Vodafone has not revealed how many users it has for its 3G network, and an Orange spokesman said the company will not discuss its usage targets.
T-Mobile launched its 3G data card last week, but will initially only offer speeds of up to 128kbps, although this will eventually rise to 384kbps. The T-Mobile package costs £199 for the card and software and £70 per month for unlimited data.
O2 said it will launch its 3G data card this autumn.
An advantage of the T-Mobile card is that it will interface with Wi-Fi networks. T-Mobile users can access more than 500 wireless hotspots at Starbucks coffee shops, motorway service stations, airports and hotels at more than 1mbps - and all part of its £70 per month subscription.
However, Vodafone users may have the advantage in terms of connectivity into corporate applications. It has introduced Citrix's Metaframe thin-client software onto its 3G network, to allow mobile workers to access high-bandwidth applications such as enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management on the move.
Citrix Metaframe allows users to see a mirror image of their main corporate desktop from any location. Metaframe can already be used on GPRS networks, but with the 3G network, users will be able to download files and access databases considerably faster.
The cost of using Metaframe is £49.50 a user per month for 50Mbytes of data, as part of a three-year contract. The price also includes the wireless card but there is a £100 set-up fee for each user. For this price organisations will also have their servers configured to allow them to be accessed by Vodafone's cards.
Kevin Bland, head of Citrix mobile business development, said, "The key is convergence between technologies. We already have convergence between GPRS and 3G, and we will see Wi-Fi networks interfacing with these two to offer an even better roaming experience to users."
It is not clear yet what T-Mobile will make available to users who need similar server configuration help to support both mobile networks and wireless Lans, and at what price.
Analyst firm Ovum said it will still be a number of years before European mobile operators consider 3G as their main line of business. It believes the technology is not yet ready to support mass market adoption since devices are in short supply and services will continue to be priced at levels which are only attractive to premium or high-volume users until the 3G infrastructure has stabilised.
There will be about 6.6 million 3G connections in western Europe by the end of 2004, according to Ovum. And though most operators will have launched 3G by then, their networks will be incomplete. This 2004 take-up figure will be just 2% of the total mobile connections across the continent. However, the long-term picture is not so gloomy. Ovum expects to see 3G connections rise to over 36% of connections - or 130 million - by 2008.
Questions remain about the reliability of the handsets though - or the networks depending who you listen to - particularly in terms of the "hand-off" between 2G and 3G networks. This is supposed to be seamless.
When a 3G signal is too weak, a GPRS network is supposed to automatically pick up the connection. But there have been complaints among users of the UK's first 3G phone service - Hutchison's consumer service 3 - that connections can be lost as a result of the hand-off.
A seamless hand-off is also promised with a 3G data card, but the card may not necessarily choose the GPRS option instead of a heavily used, or weak, 3G service. People have found that the only way to change networks is to log off and log on again, and hope a better 3G or GPRS signal is found.
As 3G develops in the UK it is likely many such teething problems will be fixed. Greater choice will mean better prices for services and a variety of options tailored to the corporate user.
Symbian dominates the mobile device market
The dominant 2.5G smartphone operating system in the UK is Symbian, which is used on devices from major handset manufacturers, including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung. The alternative Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system is mainly used in Orange's SPV handset family. It is unlikely that Microsoft will be able to immediately extend this take-up as a result of 3G though. Duncan Ledwith, head of Microsoft Windows Mobile UK, said, "To date Microsoft has been focusing on enabling operators to drive business value on the existing 2.5G networks." Orange has announced that its first batch of 3G phones will be from Sony Ericsson, which will probably run the Symbian operating system. Beyond the novelty of running Windows across all devices in a corporate IT environment from datacentre servers to mobile phones, end-users should not be faced with a taxing operating system choice. Jessica Figueras, an analyst at Ovum, said, "It should not really matter that much to users which system is used as all the major operating systems can be interfaced with Microsoft enterprise servers to gain access to Microsoft Office applications, including e-mail, contacts, and diary." She said there are only about 450,000 phones worldwide using Windows Mobile, as opposed to 6.5 million using Symbian. RIM's Blackberry is another device that will not set the 3G world alight. Many enterprise users are already using the Blackberry for e-mail, contacts and calendar over 2.5G networks and this may not change. A spokeswoman for the company said, "The Blackberry offers a high-quality service on GSM/GPRS networks, and all the applications that corporations are looking to mobilise work very well on these networks. However if there was demand for a 3G device RIM would look into it."