3G: Anything in it for businesses?

Consumers have been promised a lot from the high-speed third-generation cellular networks being rolled out around the world, but...

Consumers have been promised a lot from the high-speed third-generation cellular networks being rolled out around the world, but is there much in it for businesses?

Judging by comments from operators and equipment suppliers at the 3G World Congress show in Hong Kong this week, not really. But between the talk about movie trailers and mini soap operas being beamed to mobile phones, there were a few items for businesses to pay attention to.

Many operators talked about using 3G to offer high-speed internet access for phones, PDAs and laptops. Mobile workers can already connect to Wi-Fi networks in some public places, with data speeds of several megabits per second.

But 3G networks, while far slower than Wi-Fi, will provide access at a reasonable rate where Wi-Fi is not available, speakers said.

"Wireless knowledge workers are flexible, efficient and more responsible to customers. Suddenly, the hours on the road between meetings will become productive hours," said Lothar Pauly, chief executive at Siemens Communications.

Perhaps more compelling, he suggested, businesses may soon be able to use wireless networks for all of their data and communications needs, allowing them to negotiate one contract with a single provider.

Mobile phones are already supplanting fixed line phones in some countries, and 3G networks could extend that to the office Lan, he said.

"As 3G evolves and bandwidth increases, the problem of provisioning all types of services over one IP-based network becomes more and more solvable. The need for fixed office lines has already started to disappear. Why not extend this to include data networks, and even the services your employees use at home?" Pauly said.

Today's 3G networks offer typical speeds of only 200kbps to 400kbps, so they are unlikely to supplant office Lans yet.

However, an improved technology, called High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), or "3G evolved", is on the way, boosting typical connection speeds to between 3mbps and 4mbps, operators said.

Japan's NTT DoCoMo has said it will start to offer HSDPA services next year.

But even today's 3G networks have some appeal for businesses users, speakers said. The construction industry has found a use for 3G videophones, for example, as a way to quickly share information about a construction site or building materials, said Agnes Nardi, managing director of 3 Hong Kong.

"A picture can say a lot more than words," she said.

Videophones also provide a new channel for marketing. "The killer app for a movie studio is being able to download a movie trailer on a phone," said Lucy Hood, senior vice-president for content and marketing at News Corp.

And while consumers can use their phones to watch highlights of a soccer match or a music concert, so business people can watch financial news programmes and stay up to date more easily than with simple text, she argued.

Some speakers said that operators will be forced to offer services for businesses if they are to recover their hefty investments in 3G, particularly in Europe, where operators spent billions of euros on licences.

"You guys have dug yourselves a mighty deep hole," Christopher Graves, managing director of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine. Only by offering higher-priced business services will they be able to recover their investments, he said.

Most operators were clearly eyeing consumers first, and there was little talk of mobile customer relationship management or other business-specific applications.

Even T-Mobile International, which began by targeting business users with its 3G access cards for laptops, is switching its main focus to consumer-oriented services, said Lutz Schade, a T-Mobile executive vice-president.

"Consumers are where many of the opportunities lie," he said.

James Niccolai writes for IDG News Service

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