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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Q&A: 3G mobile phones
Sony Ericsson Z1010
Face-to-face: 3G phones allow users to make video calls

Heralded as the hi-tech future for mobile phones, third generation - or 3G - technology has promised much but delivered little.

BBC News Online looks at why that might be about to change.

Remind me, what is 3G?

3G is the next generation of mobile phone technology. It offers users a wide range of high speed mobile services, including video calling and messaging, e-mail, games, photomessaging and news and information services.

So why haven't I got one?

Technical problems have led to delays in launching the technology in Europe. Setting up networks necessary to support 3G services has proved to be an expensive business for telecom companies, while coverage outside major cities has been patchy to say the least.

Despite the prospect of video messaging, many of the 3G mobile phone handsets currently available have also failed to excite public imagination, while prices have remained stubbornly high.

Who offers a 3G service in Britain?

Hutchison 3G mobile phone
Hutchison launched its UK 3G service in March 2003

The major mobile phone companies spent billions of pounds at the beginning of the decade to secure licenses enabling them to offer 3G services in the UK. But at the moment, the choice for the consumer is pretty slim.

Asian conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa is the only operator currently offering something close to a full 3G service in Britain, through its '3' mobile network.

Telecom giants Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile have launched 3G services for corporate clients - basically plug-in cards to bring laptop PC users high speed data on the move.

My old phone gives me the news headlines and football results. Won't that do?

It depends on what you want. At the moment, your phone probably has WAP, giving you access to the internet and the web browser offered by your mobile operator.

However, the UMTS technology which powers 3G mobile communications will offer a much richer and faster service.

WAP? UMTS? Mobile phone bods like to bandy these acronyms around. But what do they mean?

UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services) is the 3G industry standard many mobile operators are adopting.

Data on the system currently used by operators in Europe and other parts of the world - GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) - chugs around at 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps). By contrast, the upper limit for 3G networks using UMTS is two megabits per second.

That is about the same as broadband connections for internet connections to your home PC.

But it should be noted that, in both cases, the actual download speeds could be somewhat less - for example, Vodafone's latest offering will download at 384 kbps.

WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) is the global standard for bringing internet content and other services - such as mobile banking and booking airline tickets- to your mobile phone.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) - often referred to as '2.5 G'- enables GSM users to send and receive data at speeds of up to 115 kbps. That's fast, but not as fast as UMTS.

Is 3G an expensive proposition?

The high cost of buying licences and building networks has been a drain on the resources of even the biggest mobile operators.

Hi-tech handsets capable of sending and receiving video messages are also currently far from cheap.

But 3 has been cutting its network prices to entice new customers and as future 3G take-up increases, companies hope prices should start to fall to levels near current mobile charges.

Be honest, is 3G really going to be the next big thing?

The jury is still out. Despite delays and setbacks, Europe's big mobile operators are pressing ahead with their plans to roll-out 3G services.

Hutchison Whampoa says demand is picking up, albeit more slowly than at first thought. However, UK operator mmO2 is more sanguine about the prospects for 3G.

In its report, 3G Deployment Status: Better Late Than Never, US market research firm In-Stat/MDR says: "Although the press has long been publishing stories about the doom and gloom of 3G, the reality is that 3G is happening, although maybe a bit later and smaller than many had hoped."

2004 could be the year when 3G services finally begin to make their mark in the UK.

3G firm plans telecoms spin-off
30 Mar 04  |  Business
Sony Ericsson banks on 3G appeal
23 Mar 04  |  Technology
Hutchison hit by 3G phone losses
18 Mar 04  |  Business
Vodafone brings 3G to UK business
12 Feb 04  |  Business
Row over hi-tech phone masts
04 Nov 03  |  Cumbria

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