How bright is the future for 3G technology?

Mobile phone companies are banking on 3G technology Keystone

As Swisscom launches its third-generation (3G) mobile services, swissinfo takes a look at whether such technology represents the future for mobile phones.

This content was published on November 16, 2004 - 14:50

Companies are hoping consumers will latch on to 3G phones, which include speedy access to video and music services.

The Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) is considered the next big step for mobile phone technology. The biggest difference to earlier systems is UMTS’ capacity to carry high-quality video over the network.

The heads of major international mobile operators, such as Orange, believe that video will be the application that will make third generation phones popular.

If all goes to plan, users will be able to watch live broadcasts of television programmes such as football matches or the news. But just how popular these services will be remains to be seen.

“Broadcasting television over the mobile network is a very attractive proposition,” said a specialist at one of Switzerland’s biggest telephone companies.

“But given the cost involved, we still have to figure out how to make it interesting for users to pay for value added services.”

Slow introduction

The introduction of third generation – or 3G – networks will be slower than originally planned back in 2000 and users will now have to buy new phones before special services can be introduced

Customers will need to be convinced to that it is worthwhile investing in new technology, since games and some video are already available without upgrading.

And future phones will require high quality colour screens, reliable batteries and enticing multimedia services.

Games, Goals and Girls

Questions have also been raised about the type of services that should be provided.

Surveys carried out by Orange in France suggest that customers are interested in sex (28 per cent), followed by news, music and sport. Local information is also popular.

None of this is actually news to operators - as 3G is also market speak for Games, Goals and Girls.

Operators believe that games, sports results and sex will be the 3G cash cows, relying on the high-speed connections UMTS offers.

Transmission speeds are up 40 times higher than the current mobile systems, enough to allow operators to offer video or music downloads.

But it is still a long way from the much higher two megabytes per second download speed that phone companies were promising back in 2000. It now seems unlikely that speeds will reach even a fifth of that rate during the first phase of 3G implementation.

Asian testers

Operators are hoping they can learn more about the implementation of new technology from Asia – the current testing ground for 3G services. Around 35 million people in Japan and South Korea have subscribed to UMTS so far.

But it took two years before phone users took to 3G and people now use their phones to download music or video clips or even watch s television.

Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo even sells phones with a chip that stores personal data and virtual funds.

These 3G phones can be used to pay bills in restaurants, supermarkets or in fast food outlets.

The Asian experience shows that it is likely to take a few years before 3G technology is accepted in Europe.

The Forrester Research Institute expects just 21 per cent of European mobile users to own a 3G handset in 2008, while operators should not expect a profit before 2014.

swissinfo, Luigino Canal

Key facts

3G: Third-generation, or "Games, Goals and Girls".
Initial transmission speeds will be between 200 and 400 kilobytes per second.
By 2008, 21 per cent of European mobile users are expected to own 3G handsets.

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