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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Tapping into the potential of 3G
It may have taken a while but 3G is going mainstream and technology analyst Bill Thompson, is pleased.

Laptop with 3G card
3G card offers fast net access from your laptop
Four years after it paid 5.9 billion pounds for the privilege, Vodafone has launched its third generation mobile phone service.

To some observers, it has jumped on the bandwagon just as it is rolling over the edge of a cliff, with 3 having to work very hard to persuade customers to sign up.

3 is offering free phones, massive discounts on call charges and - in a sure sign of desperation - an advertising campaign which features Anna Friel in a variety of strange places.

The other license holders, having failed to persuade the government to return some of the large amounts they paid back in the heady days of dotcom boom and network optimism, have written off the costs involved and delayed their launch indefinitely.

But not Vodafone, whose service goes live on Friday.

Admittedly, you cannot yet make phone calls over the network, as they are only offering a data card for your laptop to give you fast internet access on the move.

And while you could use your fast connection to make internet phone calls from your laptop when you are on the train, that is not going to be the main use.

It will be used to download e-mail, surf the web and get access to corporate networks at speeds that are as good as wi-fi, and you will not have to sit hunched over a tepid latte while you work.

And quite soon there will be 3G handsets too, although they will be advertised for their good looks, voice quality and fast e-mail access, not the apparently unwanted ability to make video calls.

Lessons to learn

When cable networks were being built in the UK during the 1980's and 1990's, the operators all thought they would make money out of selling subscriptions to TV channels.

But in Cambridge the demand was for telephone services and, once we realised it was technically feasible, internet access over cable.

Bill Thompson
It is reassuring that Vodafone still has faith in 3G because it really is a lot better than GSM or any other second generation mobile service
Unfortunately the companies did not move fast enough, and both NTL and Telewest, the companies that emerged out of the round of business failures, takeovers and forced mergers, were bankrupt by the end of the process.

Vodafone seem to want to avoid this fate, and to have learned from 3's slow sales. I travel from Cambridge to London with painful regularity, yet I rarely see anyone with a 3 phone and I have never seen anyone having a video conversation, not even just to show off to their friends.

The move to 3G networks in the UK now seems a lot more likely than it did a few months ago, but elsewhere things are a lot less clear.

Just last week on the World Service radio show Go Digital, we interviewed Christian Ogoo from Datatel GSM, and Peter Bedimer from Gateway Communications, who are both involved in launch of a new mobile phone service in Sierra Leone. Their shiny new network will run GSM, not 3G.

There are good reasons for this, like the total cost and the stability of GSM, plus the fact that it makes roaming easier for people travelling to and from Sierra Leone at a time when the majority of the world's cellular networks run GSM.

But it also carries a cost which may be borne in the future as 3G networks become more common.

Installing one mobile phone network in Sierra Leone is a real achievement, but they are unlikely to get two such networks in a short period of time.

That means that they will be stuck with GSM, and they will miss out on the next wave of mobile development and the economic development it could promote, especially if 3G becomes dominant in the developed world.

Way to go

It is reassuring that Vodafone still has faith in 3G because it really is a lot better than GSM or any other second generation mobile service.

Sony Ericsson 3G phones
Video-calling has been slow to take off
If they had pulled out, or delayed much longer, then it could have fuelled the idea that 3G is dead and we should either stick to GSM or wait for the next technology to come along - 4G or 5G or whatever strange acronym emerges from the standards-setting process.

We have already seen, in this country, how much damage uncertainty over network standards can cause in the telecommunications world.

The government will give no firm date for turning off analogue TV transmission and forcing us all over to digital because the perceived political cost is too great, and this has made it much harder to sell digital TV, even with the BBC's support for Freeview.

We do not want to find ourselves having to support aging GSM networks, and the base stations that go with them, in years to come, just because the switch to 3G was handled so badly by the network operators.

For this reason, Vodafone's move into 3G is to be welcomed. And their realisation that it is data on the move, not video calls, that will drive the market is astute and, I believe, entirely correct.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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