Technical problems force DoCoMo to delay 3G roll-out

NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular telecommunications carrier and one of the biggest supporters of third generation (3G)...

NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular telecommunications carrier and one of the biggest supporters of third generation (3G) wireless services, is delaying commercial launch of its 3G service by five months, and will instead focus on limited trials from May.

The delay will prove embarrassing for DoCoMo, which had promised a roll-out in late May and launched a publicity campaign surrounding the service, pegged as the world's first commercial 3G service.

Under the company's new plan, it will launch an "introductory" 3G trial service in the Tokyo area on 30 May. The service will be limited to around 4,000 customers, said Pat Kuwahata, a spokesman for DoCoMo, and will switch to a full commercial service on 1 October.

He said, "We will charge the normal communications fees to customers except for the basic monthly fee and handset charge." He added that during the introductory period, handsets will be lent to customers.

DoCoMo is being forced to switch gears on the service because of delays in build-out and testing of its network and the handsets.

"If you use our 3G terminal in your office or your home we cannot guarantee that everything is OK," said Kuwahata. "This is DoCoMo's mission, all we have to do is provide a 100% guaranteed service to the public. We are not able to guarantee that at the moment because we cannot ensure whether it is a stable system and stable network."

As late as last month at the CeBit trade show in Hanover, Germany, DoCoMo was proudly promoting its upcoming service and telling the thousands of visitors to its booth that it would be launching commercial service in Tokyo in May. Executives flown over from Japan to meet the press and other industry leaders also spoke of the launch preparations and reiterated that May was the firm target date for the commercial launch.

Questions had arisen, within the press and in industry circles, about DoCoMo's ability to meet the date after carriers around the world started delaying their own planned launches and handset providers began warning that they wouldn't be ready on time.

Only two handset makers will be ready to sell telephones at the end of May, DoCoMo confirmed today. Matsushita and NEC had recently neared completion of their first handsets and non-working prototypes were shown at CeBit.

The vast majority of the ten companies signed up to make 3G handsets, which include major Japanese electronic companies and Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, have said their products won't be available until later this year or next year.

Such problems, coupled with the large investments required to build the network and doubts about whether consumers would flock to the new systems to enjoy services like mobile videoconferencing, already have caused other carriers to delay the launch of their networks.

In Japan, DoCoMo's move mirrors that of J-Phone Communications, a domestic rival of DoCoMo, which in March delayed the roll out of its service by six months until July 2002, and blamed the slow pace on lagging hardware development.

Beyond the embarrassment, the delay may also slow the deployment of 3G services around the world. Many companies had been looking to Japan as a testing ground for the new technology and several foreign telecommunication equipment vendors had signed joint development pacts with Japanese companies in the hope of gaining access to knowledge learned from DoCoMo's network rollout.

Indeed, it was DoCoMo which began bringing telecommunication equipment makers together in 1998 to start work on a new global standard because it was keen to avoid a repeat of the current situation in which the standard adopted by Japanese carriers is used nowhere else in the world. Japan uses Personal Digital communications (PDC) and only recently launched a Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network. The popular European Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) is not used in Japan.

DoCoMo intends to reveal more details of the service planned for 30 May later this week.

Martyn Williams

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