Comment: 3G faces up to the critics

22 Dec 2004

Hang on a minute, isn’t it the journalist that’s supposed to bring the cynicism to the party? Not for the first time I found myself at a communications event where 3G was on the agenda and blood was in the air. Nothing, it seems, quite winds up a panel of ‘experts’ such as next-generation mobile networks.

They froth at the mouth over the €140bn that the European telcos shelled out for licences and come over all indignant that operators have the audacity to try to sell the public football clips and video calls. Besides, they invariably say, it will be Wap all over again and the handsets might not even work.

The latest boxing bout to send 3G punch-drunk from the ring was at the Digital Hub where a mix of academics, techies and hubbites were assembled to discuss the new mobile phone technology. A computer science lecturer from Trinity College Dublin, Donal O’Mahony, was particularly irked that a small number of operators had managed to get their hands on a public resource, radio spectrum and sell it back to us. Imagine how annoyed he’s going to be when he finds out that oil and gas were once ours as well.

John Hurley, another panellist, is vice-president of marketing with mobile billing firm Valista, a company that has done business with Hutchison’s 3 network in the UK. This didn’t stop him taking his place in the firing squad, with 3’s early technical failings and its unwieldy handsets as the easy targets. Like many of the arguments used against 3G, this was old news.

Since 2000, pundits, analysts and journalists have provided a long litany of reasons why 3G is destined to fail. First, there was the lack of conviction from operators over anything resembling a killer application. The problem was compounded by a surfeit of application developers, each promising something more wild and woolly than the next. Anyone for a location service that reminds you to buy a CD when you walk past a music shop? Probably not.

As more esoteric services failed to excite, there was growing concern as to whether 3G would deliver anything significantly different or better than GPRS. Even the operators were showing signs of self-doubt. They began to talk about the increased spectrum that comes with 3G infrastructure as a justification in itself for their huge licence investments. By 2006 the existing networks will be too congested and they’ll need the extra capacity, they said. In fact, they underplayed the deliverable services so much that you started to wonder if they were ever going to launch any.

Naturally, the operators took to blaming their delays on handset manufacturers. There were chip shortages, dual-mode compatibility issues, battery life problems and a general perception that they were a bit on the bulky side. Then there were the infrastructure headaches. The notorious handover difficulties of roaming between 3G and 2.5 — a prerequisite because 3G is never going to be countrywide — were a long time being solved.

More recently the argument evolved into the proposition that 3G has been overtaken by technology. Who needs a high-speed and relatively expensive mobile service when Wi-Fi can deliver faster speeds at a lower cost? Sure, it’s a fixed-location service, they say, but WiMax is coming soon and will extend its reach to the point that 3G will no longer be required.

The waves of cynicism have assumed tsunami proportions and they just keep coming. For the most part, the operators have kept their heads down, perhaps peeking above the parapet to tell us that Wi-Fi is complementary rather than a competitor, but that’s about it. Previous experience has taught them to say nothing as opposed to saying something stupid.

Having over-hyped Wap as “the internet in your pocket” and launched a service that was far from intuitive, they steadied us for the 3G launch by couching it in such phrases as “evolution not revolution”. If you don’t expect much, the thinking seems to be, you’re less likely to be disappointed. But the mood changed dramatically at last month’s launch of Ireland’s first 3G consumer service. Paul Donovan, outgoing CEO of Vodafone Ireland, described it as “the start of the most important transformation the industry has known” and you could feel the confidence in the room. And you know what? 3G looks really good.

At the launch Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Nokia and Sharp handsets acquitted themselves well, displaying a wide range of functionality. The quality of the streaming video was very impressive. Obviously we were in a controlled environment and it remains to be seen how the service holds up in the nooks and crannies of the urban areas where it has been launched, but Vodafone has delivered a compelling proposition.

Critics bemoan the lack of a killer application but Saturday afternoon Premiership clips for just €2 a hit (or €9.99 for a monthly subscription) or video calls for the price of phone call look like a strong starting point.

Of course, it’s the public that will decide but it doesn’t have to decide tomorrow. 3G licences are for 20 years.

I remember how the adoption of analogue handsets in the early Eighties was painfully slow. For many years they were so big and expensive that the only adopters were yuppie business types with fat expense accounts. The arrival of GSM was similarly non-descript and the critics were there too: why would anyone want a digital phone when the old analogue ones worked perfectly well? The simple answer was additional features such as SMS, a killer application that not even the operators had managed to predict.

Despite slow starts for each successive technology, mobile phone penetration continued to grow and has now reached saturation point. For a generation of people a mobile phone of some description is integral to their lifestyle.

3G may suffer teething problems but it will not fail. The only thing I know for certain in a technological world that is as unpredictable as an Arsenal performance is that by the time my nine-year-old son is a teenager the thing he will want most is a 3G mobile phone. I have no idea what technology he will be accessing in the classroom; I’m not entirely sure of what we’ll have at home, but I guarantee that a one-stop entertainment and communications device will be nestling in his pocket. 3G is here; get used to it.

By Ian Campbell