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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Finn times ahead for mobile phones
A Finnish woman on a tram using her mobile phone
A Finn on a tram and her mobile phone
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Finland's leading mobile phone firm Sonera is planning to switch on its third-generation phone service even though there will be no handsets available for it.

By contrast rival operators have asked for a delay to the switch-on date for the new network citing problems with handsets and technical problems.

It's probable that there will be no handsets

At the same time Spain has decided to put back the switch on date for its 3G phone system until next year until technology catches up with the ambitions of the phone firms.

In separate announcements earlier this month BT and NTT DoCoMo announced that they were being forced to delay the roll-out of their new mobile networks.

Empty hands

In March 1999 Finland became the first country in the world to award licences for new third-generation mobile phone services. Four licences were handed out to Sonera, Radiolinja, Telia Mobile and a consortium of regional telecom firms called Suomen Kolmegee.

The 3G or Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services network promise to boost the speed with which data crosses wireless phone networks and give operators chance to deploy futuristic multimedia services.

The licences were awarded on the condition that the UMTS networks went live on 1 January 2002. Now Radiolinja has asked for a delay to the switch on date, saying that problems with developing the network technology for UMTS and a lack of handsets make the deadline difficult to meet.

Last month Finnish transport and communications minister Olli-Pekka Heinonen said he would consider a delay to the start date if any of the operators asked for one. It is not yet clear whether Radiolinja's request for a postponement has been granted.

But rival mobile phone firm Sonera said it is planning to launch its UMTS network on time even though no-one will be able to use it.

"It's probable that there will be no handsets," said a spokesman for Sonera, adding that it had the same problems with handsets that BT and Manx Telecom had cited as reasons for delaying their UMTS turn-on.

He said Sonera could not even turn to Finnish phone maker Nokia for help because its 3G handset would not be available until late in 2002.

"We are monitoring the situation but still we are holding to the target, which would mean launching service from the beginning of next year," he said.

No networks

That countries that have led the way in mobile use cannot get the technology to work will come as yet another blow to mobile phone firms keen to recover some of the cash they splashed out to buy 3G licences.

Radiolinja, BT and Manx Telecom are not alone in delaying the launch of their networks, earlier this month NTT DoCoMo said it too was delaying its 3G network.

Now it has emerged that Spain has given permission to its mobile operators to launch in June 2002. Originally the Spanish firms were due to switch their UMTS networks on in August of this year.

All 3G licences have strings attached that force mobile phone firms to meet certain switch on dates, coverage targets or standards of service. Those operators with UK licences must have their network cover 80% of the population by 2007.

Delays could also hit German mobile phone firms which are currently discussing whether to share networks in a bid to cut costs.

"These delays do not come as a great surprise" said Jason Chapman, senior analyst at the Gartner Group consultancy, "we are seeing delays where the operators were probably being over ambitious with their launch dates."

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See also:

23 Feb 01 | Business
Mobile firms face 3G delays
14 May 01 | Business
BT delays first 3G mobile launch
11 May 01 | Business
Europe set to win 3G battle
24 Apr 01 | Business
DoCoMo delays 3G launch
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