Three goes forth in the UK

22 Apr 2003

If you don’t look your best first thing in the morning, you may have to think twice before answering the phone in the future, if it’s a 3 mobile phone, that is. 3 is the name of the third generation (3G) phone service that’s due to launch in Ireland on 1 January, 2004.

In addition to all the usual things you would expect from a modern mobile phone — voice calls, text messaging, picture messaging, email and so on — 3 has something extra up its sleeve: videophone capabilities. So long as you’re in a 3 coverage area and calling someone else on a 3 handset also in 3 coverage, you can see the person you’re talking to, as well as hear him or her.

And even if you’d rather be heard and not seen when you’re on the phone, the video functions don’t end there. You can download video news bulletins, movie trailers and even Premiership highlights, direct to your phone to enjoy over and over again.

Of course, such space-age functionality doesn’t come cheap. In the UK and Northern Ireland, where 3 launched on 3 March (03.03.03, geddit?) the handsets are supposed to sell from £250 sterling (€365) to £450 sterling (€655), though the first 20,000 UK consumers who signed up to the service benefited from a half-price discount on the handsets, and within a few weeks of the launch, prices were falling.

The tariffs don’t look too appealing at first glance either. There’s a pay-as-you-go option, with video calls and downloads at 50p per minute, and picture messages and calls to other mobiles at 25p per minute. For contract customers, there are two tariffs, £59.99 sterling (€87) or £99.99 sterling (€145) a month. On the cheaper tariff (double these figures for the more expensive tariff) you get 100 minutes of inclusive video calls, 50 downloadable video events (news bulletins, Premiership game highlights and so on), 40 video messages (similar to a text message, but video), 60 picture messages and 250 text messages. Once these allowances are used up, you pay per minute, download or message as applicable.

So far, so steep, but there’s one potentially crucial factor of which Hutchison has so far made nothing, and which could be the key to the network’s success. On the cheaper tariff, you also get 1,000 minutes of voice calls to all UK mobile and landline numbers. The more expensive tariff gives you 2,000 minutes.

Serious mobile users who are already racking up this much voice calling each month are likely to be paying much more than £59.99 sterling or £99.99 sterling respectively for the privilege. Anyone in this category should consider taking a 3 handset for the voice calls alone and treat everything else as a bonus.

Coverage is an issue. The video functions are only available in 3 coverage areas. These will be expanded as the network rolls out, but initially are likely to be concentrated around the Republic’s larger cities. To get an idea of how things will look, you can check the coverage map for the UK on the 3 website ( In Northern Ireland, 3G coverage is currently limited to Belfast and its environs, Ballymena and Derry.

When you’re not in a 3 coverage area, the service defaults to a standard 2G service, thanks to a roaming agreement with rival network, O2. During pre-launch trials of the 3 network, problems were encountered with dropped calls when users moved from a 3G to a 2G coverage area — this situation has still not been resolved. If you move from 3G to 2G coverage mid-call, the call will be dropped, though Hutchison says it is working on a cure for the problem.

Another point to note is that on two of the three handsets available at launch in the UK, both from NEC, there are no standard 2G Wap services available if you’re outside 3G coverage. The third handset, from Motorola, does offer Wap when you can’t get the enhanced 3G online services. The Motorola handset, however, does not support person-to-person videophone calls.

There are a couple of additional caveats. You get software on a CD with your 3 handset, but this has no modem drivers, so you can’t use your 3G handset as a fast wireless modem with a notebook computer. And battery life, especially when you’re using the video functions, is poor. You may get a couple of hours ‘talk’ time if you’re lucky. One of the handsets, the NEC e606, does at least come with two batteries and chargers.

Though there are undoubtedly flaws with the service currently running in the UK and Northern Ireland, the good news for customers in the Republic is that some, if not all, of these should have been ironed out by the time the service launches here.

NEC’s 3g handset is put through its paces

I’ve been using the NEC e606 for the past week, and after a slow start, have grown to like it. You’re certainly popular in the pub when you can play back Premiership highlights and news bulletins to an admiring crowd trying to get a look at the screen.

The quality of the video downloads is surprisingly good. Better, in fact, than I had expected. But it is a download, not a stream, and on average you wait a second for every second of video downloaded. So the average 90-second news bulletin or football highlights package takes the same length of time to download. Also, you sort of expect a rolling news service. In fact, the bulletins are updated just four times a day, at 8am, 1.30pm, 4.30pm and 8.30pm. So log on at 4pm and the guy next to you with the Wap phone will be the one getting the more up-to-date news, albeit without the video.

The battery life is disappointing, too, given what we’ve all become accustomed to on modern phones. Without using much higher-capacity batteries that would make an already larger-and-heavier than-usual handset even more cumbersome, there seems no obvious solution to this problem.

Leaving aside the video capabilities, there are other gripes with the NEC handset. Entering contacts, for example, is a laborious process and the Menu system could be more intuitive. But these are early days. There will be better handsets in time and my guess is that heavy mobile phone users, in particular, won’t need too much convincing to shell out for one.

Dave Murphy is a freelance technology journalist based in the UK