Why are we waiting for 3G?

The annual 3GSM World Congress is turning the spotlight on the promise of 3G communications, but when will companies be able to...

The annual 3GSM World Congress is turning the spotlight on the promise of 3G communications, but when will companies be able to take real-life advantage of the much heralded services?

Before 3G can play the business role it's being groomed for there are plenty of technical and marketing problems that will have to be overcome by the handset manufacturers and network operators. In fact, most of these hurdles have been around for years.

When the big four UK operators won their 3G licences in the spring of 2000, the vast sums raised by the government from the auction were supposed to spur the operators on to quick launches of 3G services, to help them recoup their borrowed billions.

Promises, promises
Despite the fact they were faced with having to build separate 3G networks from scratch to be able to offer the high data speeds promised by 3G, the operators fell into a marketing hype trap. This saw them being led by their marketing departments into promising that 3G would arrive in the UK in 2001.

If you don't count a very limited trial by the tiny Manx Telecom on the Isle of Man, which finally began at the end of last year, 3G is nowhere to be seen in the UK.

The 3G standard that Europe will be using - in the form of the W-CDMA protocol - was clearly not going to be ready for any sort of commercial use in 2001. If one had made a pastime of studying the timetables of the international standards bodies, like the International Telecommunications Union for instance, it was clear we weren't going to see any services until 2003 or even 2004.

And if companies had listened to Nokia, they would have seen a definitive timetable of technologies being laid out. First we would see the quick take-up of WAP over GSM, then we would see the roll-out of much faster WAP over GPRS handsets and networks.

Around the same time we would see something called EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) deliver even faster data services, and then we would reach the Holy Grail of 3G capability.

If what we were told two years ago had come to pass, we would have already dumped our WAP GSM phones and replaced them with GPRS ones with better WAP browsers by now. And early adopters would be using EDGE, and the first users would be watching the match or downloading other data at anything between 384Kbps and 2Mbps on a 3G phone.

The way we are now
It hasn't quite worked out this way of course, partly because the operators and handset manufacturers made optimistic promises and partly because they got off to a very bad start with WAP.

It's a fact that most users equipped with WAP phones don't even use the WAP browser to connect. Many aren't able to because they don't know how to do it, many don't see the point of paying to access the poor content available, and others prefer to use SMS messaging instead. It is quicker and cheaper to send an SMS message than it is to log onto a WAP portal and use it to send an e-mail.

As a result of the poor usage of WAP on GSM phones, the operators have struggled to make the case for WAP over GPRS phones. Why would someone want to get poor content quicker using more expensive WAP over GPRS?

They could of course use their GPRS phones as fast modem bearers to connect their laptops to corporate networks, which is the main business case for GPRS as it allows data transfer at around 30Kbps as opposed to 10Kbps over GSM. But the number of companies signing up to this type of service is barely out of the hundreds so far, because it is very expensive.

At the moment, 3G seems to be a very good idea looking for a compliant market, which unfortunately for the operators seems a long way off.

3G - The global view
Operators in South Korea were the first - in summer 2001 - to launch anything like a 3G service in summer 2001. The data speeds are up to 384Kbps, but aren't based on the W-CDMA protocol, which means phones there won't operate on European networks.

NTT DoCoMo launched its first limited 3G services serving Tokyo at the end of last year and was immediately plagued by problems relating to the way the handsets connected users to the service. Its phones use W-CDMA but not to the final approved standard, so international roaming isn't possible for instance.

Manx Telecom also launched its trial to a handful of users on the Isle of Man, and its success or otherwise is being monitored by BT Cellnet and the other UK operators. Manx has also experienced handset problems.

What the UK operators are planning for 3G:
and BT Cellnet claim they'll have the first commercial trials this year. The first real services aren't expected to be available until some time in 2003.

Orange has just launched its GPRS service so is further behind.

One2One hasn't even launched a GPRS service yet, and is traditionally well behind the other three more established operators.

Virgin Mobile piggy-backs on the One2One network as a "mobile virtual network operator" and is reliant on its partner's technical plans.

Phones which offer companies good mobile Internet facilities now, without having to wait for 3G:

Motorola V66 - WAP, GPRS, and world voice roaming - £400

Ericsson T39 - WAP, GPRS, high-speed circuit switched data (HSCSD), Bluetooth, infrared, and world voice roaming - £ 275

Nokia 8310 - WAP, GPRS, HSCSD, FM radio, and world voice roaming - £350

Motorola A008 - WAP, GPRS, infrared connectivity, and handwriting recognition with a stick - £200

Ericsson R520 - WAP, GPRS, Bluetooth, and world voice roaming - £250

Source: AOL best buys

Read more on Wireless networking