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Friday, 14 December, 2001, 10:35 GMT
Test run for future phones
3G phone, MMO2
3G phones can handle video and audio
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

It is rare that people look to the Isle of Man for a glimpse of the future.

But this self-governing dependent territory of the British Crown - you might be surprised to learn - has actually become a playground for new technologies.

The plan is between now and the end of March to let customers use it as they want to... then we'll sit down with them and they can tell us the value of having the service

Mark Briers, Manx Telecom
It was among the first to have entirely digital telephone exchanges, and it was there that BT trialled its high-speed net service. And now the Isle of Man, along with Japan, Monaco and Korea, is one of the few places where third-generation (3G) mobile phones are being tested.

Existing phones that can make calls and send text (SMS) messages are second generation or 2G, those with colour screens that can send multimedia messages, use Wap and higher speed data services are 2.5G.

But third-generation phones are supposed to be something else again. The very high data rates that these futuristic networks can handle should let phone firms offer an enormous range of new services.

Testing the future

The problem for phone companies, which have committed billions to 3G, is that they do not really know what people will want to do with these futuristic services. And they are still not sure how they should charge people for these services; or if the technology will really work properly.

Isle of Man newspaper, BBC
Isle of Man's 3G network went live on 5 December
This is where the Isle of Man comes in.

Manx Telecom is a wholly owned subsidiary of BT and is the test ground for the 3G services that will be unveiled on the UK mainland towards the end of 2002.

On 5 December, the Isle of Man's 3G network was officially switched on and this week BT, or MM02 as its demerged mobile arm is known, showed just what the network could do.

MM02 organised a data race between different technologies to show how fast 3G could download data. The theoretical maximum for a 3G network is 384 kilobits per second (kbps), far faster than the 56 kbps possible with a PC modem.

The 3G network finished second and beat everything but high-speed net access that runs at 512 kbps.

Also demonstrated was a van fitted with a laptop that used the 3G network to get hold of information about places of interest it was passing. It quickly pulled up video clips, audio files and detailed web pages that would take hours to download over existing mobile phone networks.

Impressive handsets

Some early 3G handsets were also available to play with.

Mark Briers, who is in charge of the 3G project for Manx Telecom, said the handsets were part of a limited production run and were likely to be very different to those launched with the mainland services.

Sleek, silver IMT 2000 NEC handsets, MMO2
A few lucky consumers will get to play with the sleek, silver IMT 2000 NEC handsets for free
Nevertheless, the sleek, silver IMT 2000 NEC handsets are a vast improvement on existing phones with their monochrome screens, terse SMS messages and slow Wap services.

A worldwide shortage of handsets that can connect to both 2G and 3G networks is holding back the move to the new networks.

When 3G is first launched it is only likely to be available in big cities. But anyone signing up will inevitably want to be able to make calls when they are out of range of 3G; hence the need for dual-mode phones.

Lucky consumers

For its 3G trial, MM02 is using a few hundred of the NEC IMT 2000 phones. Most will be given to Isle of Man government workers or businesses which MM02 thinks will be good testers of the service.

Over 60 banks have offices on the Isle of Man and many of their staff travel widely and could be well served by a phone that can get at fast data services while its owner is on the move.

Up to 10 of the phones will be given out to a few lucky consumers - the island has a population of 75,000 - chosen by lottery.

Even better, anyone who takes part in the trial will not have to pay to use the service until April next year. Mr Briers said Manx Telecom and MM02 were more interested in what people did with the service and what proved useful, rather than what they were willing to pay for.

"The plan is between now and the end of March to let customers use it as they want to," he said, "Then we'll sit down with them and they can tell us the value of having the service."

Encouraging signs

One of the headaches for the telecoms companies is knowing how to charge for 3G.

Voice phone calls are easy to charge for because they have a definite start and end point. By contrast, data use, which involves shipping around small packets of information, is much more nebulous.

Mr Briers said final billing models could be based around the duration of data calls, the volume of data someone downloaded, and how valuable they regarded the content they were looking at. There could even be packages tailored to lifestyles.

There are encouraging signs that 3G will be popular.

"MM02 now has almost one million Wap users," said Chris Hall, chief executive of Manx Telecom. "The churn with Wap customers is a lot lower than others and the average revenue per user also goes up."

But what remains unknown is which of the novel services will be popular, and how much consumers will be prepared to pay for them. If the phone companies get it wrong, then they will be the ones paying for a long time to come.

See also:

12 Apr 01 | Business
Isle of Man advances in 3G race
22 Feb 01 | Business
Isle of Man heads 3G race
11 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
3G talk gets cheaper
01 Jun 01 | Business
Glitches hit Japan's 3G trial
15 May 01 | Business
Finland stalls on 3G launch
25 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Pogo to the future
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