3G: And then there were four
Three of the UK’s mobile operators have now joined 3 in offering next generation services.
The highlight of the summer of 2004 – at least for mobile industry watchers – was the quickening of pace for 3G technology, as Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile launched their first UMTS-based offerings. None of the networks opted to launch with a voice handset, however, leaving 3, Hutchison’s year-old service, as the only operator offering 3G voice calls.
Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile clearly hope that data-only services will attract early adopters, especially business users. The UMTS-based networks promise data speeds of up to 384kbps, although in practice, speeds of around 200kbps seem more realistic. And, given that 3G coverage still lags behind that for regular GSM or even GPRS-based services, each network is offering a dual mode PC card that supports GPRS too.
Pricing for the new services appears to be keener than for existing GPRS, but it is hardly aggressive (see table: How 3G data cards stack up). Operator subsidies bring the cost of a data card down to under £100 for high volume users willing to sign a one-year contract.
Orange and T-Mobile offer “unlimited use” tariffs (with a 1GB monthly data allowance under their fair usage policies). Vodafone’s maximum data bundle is 500MB. O2 has yet to show its hand: a 3G launch is expected later this year or in early 2005.
Orange claims that it has market leading coverage, with 66% of the UK population within reach of 3G, and the company plans to expand this to 80% next year. Vodafone’s strategy has been to focus on the south of England and major communications corridors. T-Mobile is bundling access to its WiFi hotspots with its top of the range 3G tariff.
Analysts believe this is a sensible approach. “The greatest usage for 3G will be in city centres and airports,” says Paolo Pescatore, mobile technologies analyst at IDC. “People won’t want to use 3G in their offices, as they will have access to their own local area networks.”
Coverage should improve steadily over the next year or so, not least because operators are receiving feedback from users in the field that helps them fine-tune their networks.
User experience of 3G has been patchy. Retailers admit to data cards being retur-ned, and, even in areas with supposedly strong data coverage, there can be connection problems, especially in buildings.
The first generation of 3G cards also appear to share some of the problems the 3 network experienced with its voice services, with equipment struggling in areas on the boundary of a 2.5G and 3G signal.
Ben Wood, mobile technologies analyst at Gartner, says that he has successfully connected with data speeds of between 200kpbs and 250kbps on 3G networks. But he cautions that the technical difference between networks, combined with differences in their strategies, affects how well the technology works.
“Vodafone is committed to quality over [area of] coverage [but] is concentrating on inside the M25 and in the major cities,” says Wood. “Orange has been overlaying its 3G network on its existing 1800MHz [GSM] network.”
Orange’s 1800MHz network needs a high density of masts to support it. Consequently the company has more masts than O2 or Vodafone, making it easier for Orange to roll out UMTS.
The challenge for 3, he says, is that the network uses very early 3G equipment – a consequence of it being first to the market. O2 could benefit from the decision to hold back on 3G services, as it should be able to learn from rivals’ roll-outs.
For businesses taking services from Vodafone, Orange or T-Mobile, 3G networks are now at a stage where it should be possible to run pilot projects. Networks are offering favourable terms on equipment to corporates, including data cards on loan.
This enables IT departments to test compatibility with existing systems, such as virtual private networks and firewalls, as well as network coverage, at virtually no financial risk. Where companies are already running services for mobile workers using 2.5G data cards and laptop PCs, a trial of 3G should be a simple matter.
The networks may not be reliable enough, however, to justify a new project purely on the strength of bandwidth. Although 3G promises higher data speeds, enterprises will need to write applications with the assumption that their staff will frequently have to fall back on GPRS-level services or else download data in a 3G coverage area or at a WiFi hotspot, and then work offline.
Applications that can work with periodic data updates will function well under the current 3G networks, but companies will struggle to make those that are very ‘chatty’ or require high bandwidth on demand to work properly.
And, as yet, there is no 3G support for enterprises that have based their mobile working technologies around PDAs. There are no SecureDigital or Compact Flash format 3G cards, and no Bluetooth-compatible 3G phones, at least on Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile. If the network operators want 3G to be a real option for businesses, they still have work to do.