3G consumer launch delayed until end of year

23 Feb 2004

Autumn is the earliest that Irish consumers can expect to be able to go into a shop and buy a next generation 3G mobile phone, despite all three operators making a commitment to a ‘commercial launch’ in the second half of last year.

Last Thursday ComReg published the proposed schedules submitted by the applicants in their successful license bids, and though the regulatory body says the operators met their roll out and infrastructure requirements, consumers may question the accuracy of the phrase ‘commercial launch’ of services.

Commercial launch dates for Vodafone, O2 and Hutchison’s 3 network were given as May 1, December 15 and September 30 respectively though any commercial presence of 3G in Ireland remains non-existent.

“It is somewhat confusing,” says O2’s corporate affairs manager Johanna Cassells. “They are regulatory requirements. They are not commercial services. We don’t believe there will be commercial services in the market until the latter part of this year. There is a clear difference between a commercial service and a regulatory requirement.”

O2 like Vodafone and Hutchison are currently trialling their 3G data services with a limited number of corporate customers. As far as Vodafone is concerned it has met its launch obligations. “We have a small number of business customers who have has 3G handsets from us since our commercial launch last May,” says Joan Keating, Vodafone’s head of corporate communications. “They are paying the equivalent of GPRS tariff rates.”

“The 3 network is live and is available to key corporate customers,” says Ed Brewster of 3 UK. “We expect, however, it will be some time before the service becomes available through retail outlets. At the moment we have over 100 people working on the project in Irleand and we are focused on rolling out the network in the Dundrum area of Dublin.”

ComReg doesn’t regard the launch issue as its problem: “They [the networks] are ready commercially to launch from the work we have done with them, the problem is a handset issue,” said a spokesperson. “They are all working on that and reporting back to us.”

Johanna Cassells elaborates: “The reality is that there is not an adequate supply of 3G handsets and won’t be until 2004 to support the technology. We want 3G handsets that are similarly priced to 2.5 handsets. They need to be as compelling to buy as existing phones. They are simply not available.”

Cassells also said that O2 were unhappy with ComReg releasing the application documents though they accepted its decision. “By publishing the terms of the license it affects the competitiveness of the roll out plans. We were against them doing that,” she says.

By Ian Campbell