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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 17:37 GMT
So what's the point of 3G?
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

World cup trophy, AP
The World Cup in 2006 could be good for 3G
Now here's a question: What actually is the point of 3G phones? Finding the answer is a bit more tricky, as the phone companies are discovering.

All the UK's mobile operators have launched 3G services and in 2005 they will start working hard to persuade existing customers to trade up and make efforts to poach new patrons from rivals.

But although the operators think that their customers are ready for 3G it is far from clear that their networks are as well prepared.

Networks and notworks

At first glance 3G phones seem to be very similar to the 2.5G ones we have now except that everything happens a bit faster or looks and sounds a little better.

But the big difference between 3G and existing phones lies in the network.

To begin with, the vastly greater carrying capacity of 3G networks means that voice calls get much cheaper. This is a big problem for phone firms which currently get most of their money from people talking to each other.

To compensate, operators running 3G networks have to get people using, and paying for, data services such as video clips, music tracks, games, weather reports etc.

And this is where the problems start.

"We really don't know what people are going to do with these networks," said Stirling Essex, from mobile testing firm Ubinetics.

Phones on display at Cebit show, AFP/Getty
For young people 3G is all about the phone
Third-generation networks are inherently more complicated because of the amount and sorts of data that people will want.

Serving up a video clip to one person is straight-forward.

Serving up a video clip of a winning goal during moments after it happens in a key match of England's 2006 World Cup campaign to millions of people, balancing the load across servers holding the clip, making sure the clip does not stutter, that it is adequately protected, that all the rights holders are acknowledged, that everyone is paid properly and customers are charged correctly is a much bigger task.

And, said Mr Essex, it is one that no network has adequately tested yet.

"There are going to be bottlenecks," he said.

The most basic question, of whether there is enough room in the 3G radio frequencies to serve up streams of data to millions of people has yet to be answered, he said.

Many operators are realising that they are going to have to upgrade to a faster form of 3G, that goes by the graceful name of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), which boosts airborne bandwidth to new heights.

Until that is widely deployed and handsets that can use it reach consumers, there are likely to be problems, said Mr Essex.

"We would all benefit from operators spending more on infrastructure," he said.

Site seeing

And that leads to another problem with 3G - the sites of the base stations that provide coverage.

Third-generation services need many more base stations than earlier generations so simply adding a 3G aerial to an existing site will not do.

Mock-up of 3G avatar, Mobeon
An animated character could guide you round your phone
Physics dictates that the coverage of each 3G base station shrinks as more people use its available bandwidth to make calls, browse the web or listen to music.

This means that base stations have to be packed tighter than ever which is tricky at a time when mobile masts are viewed with suspicion.

"The problem is the planning constraints," said Mr Essex, "if an operator has a certain number of cell sites, they have to sweat those assets as much as they can."

"But," he said, "that does mean there are going to be dead spots."

And then there is the problem of the handsets.

Phones that have to handle all three generations of phone networks and switch seamlessly between the different frequencies they use are inherently more complicated than those made just for one.

In the early days this led to lots of problems as handset makers wrestled to make hardware that could hand off from one generation of network to another.

Customers are also likely to find that, at least in the first 3G handsets, that battery life is pretty poor.

"Two years ago 80% of the power in a phone went to the modem part," said Mr Essex, "now with 3G that has dropped to 30%."

Most power now, he said, goes to the screen and media decoders that turn data streams into sound, pictures and video or graphics processors that let you play those 3D games.

Service centre

Finally, there remains a question over how many people will even bother to use all the new services that 3G makes available.

Research by mobile phone firm Mobeon could come as something of a shock for 3G operators.

The company surveyed 16-19 year-olds to find out what they want from their future phones and found that most were utterly turned off by the perceived complexity of getting at data services.

"Almost all of them want very simple services," said Robert Vangstad, Mobeon spokesman.

Few were likely to wade through pages of menus to seek out the things that the mobile operators want them to spend their money on, he said.

For this young group the most important thing about 3G services was the handset.

"It was important for them to identify themselves with their telephone," said Mr Vangstad, "everything about their telephone was helping to create their identity."

The research revealed that there was little loyalty to the operator or affection for any particular service.

What might make a difference was avatars - animated characters - that can tell a phone's owner about things that might interest them.

Without such an interface 3G operators might struggle to get people using all the extras they need them to use, said Mr Vangstad.

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