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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Japan starts 3G phones trial
One of NTT DoCoMo's third-generation mobile phones
Foma phones: Freedom of mobile multimedia access, promises DoCoMo
The world's first trial of third-generation (3G) mobile phones is under way in Japan.

There will be no more than 3,300 users at first, and the service will be available only in Tokyo and some districts of neighbouring Yokohama and Kawasaki.

My first impression is it's great... it's so fast

3G user Shintaro Yanagisawa
Japan's leading mobile phone firm, NTT DoCoMo, hopes to roll out a full service from October onwards. The company had originally planned to launch its 3G network this month.

However, software glitches have marred even the trial launch, with the much-vaunted videophones not being available for at least another month.

Third-generation mobile phones promise users fast and "always on" access to the internet, e-mail and video streams. Depending on network capacity, they can be up to 40 times faster than current mobile phones.

Gadget fans eager for 3G

DoCoMo customer with 3G phone
Just 3,300 users will have a chance to test the new 3G phones
More than 147,000 people did apply to take part in the 3G trial, but just 3,330 were chosen to test the handsets.

Their first impressions were favourable.

"It's great, it's so fast", said Shintaro Yanagisawa, a 24-year old employee of a marketing company.

And DoCoMo's president, Keiji Tachikawa, was bullish about 3G's prospects: "This system turns a new page in mobile communications of the 21st century."

Docomo has dubbed the new service "Foma", or freedom of mobile multimedia access.

Free handsets

Participants in the trial were given the handsets for free, but have to pay a fee for the amount of data they send or receive.

Three minutes of data transmission will cost them between 100 and 150 yen ($0.83-1.25, 0.60-0.88).

But while the test phones are free, the real thing will cost consumers dearly.

I-Mode phones, the Japanese predecessor of 3G, cost about 30,000 yen ($250, 175), and 3G handsets are expected to be more expensive.

One of the testers, Yoshihiro Fujita, thinks the new phones are "cool", but is sceptical whether he would fork out extra for a 3G phone.

Unfreeze that phone

DoCoMo hopes the trial will help it to purge the complex system of software and hardware bugs.

Users have been warned that the technology is not quite there yet.

The screens of the 3G phones on trial are likely to freeze, for example, and "re-booting" the phone by switching it off and on again is the only remedy.

The network itself is limited as well. So far, the telecoms ministry has not yet guaranteed the technical quality of the 3G service, which in Japan is a precondition for running a commercial network.

The full roll-out of 3G services will only cover Tokyo, other centres such as Osaka and Nagoya may have access in December.

A nationwide service could come in about a year's time.

I-Mode money spinner

DoCoMo hopes to repeat the success of its i-Mode service, a high-speed, always-on phone service that has set benchmarks for the global telecoms industry.

In just a few years, i-Mode has gained 23 million subscribers, and its usability has beaten rival systems such as the Wap services available in Europe hands-down.

With Japanese mobile phone users furiously emailing each other, swapping pictures, reading horoscopes and playing games, i-Mode earned DoCoMo more than $3bn in one year alone.

The company, however, is cautious in its estimates for 3G uptake.

It expects not more than 150,000 people to subscribe to the service during the first year, although one reason for the slow roll-out will be the scarcity of 3G handsets.

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See also:

23 May 01 | Business
3G 'lemmings' face tough future
11 May 01 | Business
Europe set to win 3G battle
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