There was always something a little odd about the third-generation (3G) wireless network on the Isle of Man – for one thing, the fact that it was there at all.
Thanks to some free equipment donated by several Japanese manufacturers looking for a 3G test bed in the West, this small island off the Lancashire coast claimed to be the first place in Europe to have an operational 3G network when it was switched on in mid-2001. (Admittedly, another beneficiary of free 3G kit, Monaco, made a similar claim, but that is another story.) A handful of Isle of Man residents thus had the rare privilege of being able to try out fancy new 3G services such as video applications before the rest of us, and for no charge.
But in a suitably bizarre twist to the tale, it has now emerged that Manx Telecom has switched off the 3G network. Manx, the island’s main telecoms operator, says the system was never designed to be permanent and it would soon become redundant once commercial 3G services were launched elsewhere in Europe.
One problem was that the 3G equipment sent from Japan was only 3G’s first generation, if you will. This appeared to mean that Manx would, in effect, have had to invest in an entirely new network if it wanted customers to use the latest 3G handsets, since newer devices would have been incompatible with Manx’s network.
A bigger problem came in the shape of an alternative wireless technology to 3G. In February 2004, one of the island’s business ISPs, called Domicilium, launched broadband wireless services over an entirely new system. At 60Mbit/s, the data transfer speeds of the Domicilium system (which uses equipment supplied by Cambridge Broadband) is more than 20 times faster than anything that 3G could offer. And, since it operates in an unregulated portion of the radio spectrum, there are lower set-up costs for the operator that could be passed on to the customer.
Elsewhere, 3G services continue to struggle in the face of competition from other disruptive technologies such as WiFi, which also uses unregulated frequencies. Only five million people in western Europe will be using a 3G mobile device by the end of the year, far lower than had been expected, according to new estimates by Analysys Research. WiFi use seems to be growing faster: Gartner reckons the number of WiFi users will have tripled to 30 million by the end of 2004.
Just as the launch of the Manx Telecom network in 2001 came to represent the industry’s optimism in 3G technology, so its termination in the face of technical challenges and competition from newer technologies could be seen as symbolising 3G’s present predicament.