Mobile operators across Europe are on the starting blocks to roll out 3G services after having forked out billions of euros to acquire licences more than two years ago. The new packet-based technology offers users fast speeds and multimedia services, such as video streaming.

Following announcements at the 3GSM event earlier this year, it seems that 3G has finally arrived, although vendors are divided between consumers and business. 3 is focusing on pictures and videos, while the others are providing business-oriented services such as laptop data cards and bundles which include higher speed Wi-Fi access.

These strategies all became much clearer at this month's CeBIT exhibition in Germany. Rival operators around Europe are closely watching operators in Germany - the continent's largest mobile phone market - as they roll out new 3G services based on WCDMA technology. Their new services and fees could serve as benchmarks for the industry. What is more, some operators chose the venue to make European launches.

T-Mobile is going for the full monty: a combined voice and data 3G service, launching in May, in the UK, Germany and Austria. It will in due course combine Wi-Fi, 3G and GPRS services, accessed by the same device, whether PDA, phone or laptop. In other announcements at CeBIT, O2 launched a data-card only service, and Vodafone said its data-card service - the first to launch in Europe - was a storming success.

T-Mobile: voice, data and a Nokia phone
T-Mobile will launch 3G voice and data services in the UK, Germany and Austria, beginning in May, company Chairman René Obermann said on Thursday at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany.

T-Mobile, Obermann said, aims to be the first in Europe to offer customers both 3G mobile data cards and handsets based on WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) technology. Of the other 3G services, 3 offers handsets, while Vodafone and O2 are both data-only.

T-Mobile will use Nokia's 7600 phone, according to Nokia chief executive Jorma Ollila, who spoke at the T-Mobile news conference.

As part of its assault on the market for high-speed mobile communication services, T-Mobile plans a multimedia network service, called TM3, which will offer customers three access technologies: 3G, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and WLAN (wireless LAN).

Customers will be able to move between the three networks, depending on availability, for the same fee, according to Obermann. Connection software in the device - whether it's a mobile phone, PDA (personal digital assistant) or notebook -will select the best possible connection. The initial 3G speeds will be up to 384 kbit/s.

T-Mobile will offer a wide range of both volume and time-based rates. For instance, for a monthly fee of €110 (US$135), customers can transmit up to 500 Mbyte. Or, if they prefer a time-based fee, they can pay €35 for 600 minutes of online connectivity and €1.30 for each additional 10 minutes.

In Germany, T-Mobile's network will cover 200 cities, or 40 percent of the population when it launches in May, and expects to have 50 percent coverage by the end of this year.

In addition, the mobile operator plans to expand its WLAN hotspots worldwide from 5,000 at present to more than 15,000 over the coming months. Of the 5,000, more than 4,000 are currently in the US.

Vodafone: data cards, and phones by Christmas
Rival operator Vodafone D2, the first in Europe to launch a 3G mobile data service, is selling mobile data cards as fast as manufacturers can supply them, said chief executive Jürgen von Kuczkowski at Cebit.

"Demand for the high-speed service is very strong," he said. "Our sales so far give me every reason to believe that 3G will be an overwhelming success, despite some early network teething problems and the lack of small, reliable handsets with a long-battery life."

Vodafone expects to launch one or two handsets in the next couple of months and to overcome the handset problem completely in time for the Christmas shopping season. "I'm confident we'll meet this deadline," said Kuczkowski. However, he promised not to introduce 3G phones until they met all quality features of present second-generation GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones. "We're going to remain very stubborn on this issue," he said.

Looking ahead, Vodafone customers can expect to see more handsets from Asian suppliers, he said. "Mobile devices from Asian suppliers are becoming increasingly attractive," he said. "Our traditional suppliers in Europe are no longer as dominant as they once were."

Vodafone will continue to work closely with suppliers in developing branded services, such as the operator's Live! mobile Internet service, Kuczkowski said. This cooperation will extend to new 3G services.

To offer customers greater transparency, Vodafone has decided to offer customers a flat fee for its Live! service, Kuczkowski said.

The operator is also testing new push-to-talk technology, similar to the walkie-talkie service pioneered by Nextel Communications Inc. in the U.S., said Chief Operating Officer Friedrich Joussen. "We're studying the technology but can't say, just yet, whether or not we will ever deploy it," he said.

O2: 3G data service hits Germany, includes Wi-Fi
The German arm of mobile operator O2 will offer a mobile data card service based on WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) technology from next month. No word on the UK launch, however.

The O2 Active UMTS Data card service will cost €4.27 a month. Customers can choose between three volume-based packages: 10Mbytes for €10 per month; 50Mbytes for €25; and 150Mbytes for €50. Usage exceeding these packages costs €1.64 per additional megabyte. The mobile data card costs €285. All prices are without value-added tax, which is 16 percent in Germany.

The Munich-based mobile operator has decided not to offer time-based rates at this stage, according to Lutz Schüler, senior vice president product development.

"The studies we've conducted indicate that users spend a fair amount of time reading a web page or an e-mail," he said. "Many of them have told us they prefer to pay for the data they download and not for the idle time they spend reading."

The mobile card will come with special software that allows users with WLAN connectivity to connect to O2's Wlan networks as well, and will support 3G speeds of 384 kbit/s and GPRS speeds of 53.6 kbit/s.

In the second half of this year, 02 will launch [email protected], which allows residential users and small businesses to connect their PCs or private WLANs to its 3G network. The package includes a preconfigured base station.

"All you have to do is connect your PC and you're off and running," Schüler said. Prices will be announced in the run-up to the service launch.

Users can also combine the [email protected] service with another mobile phone service, Genion, which allows them to make phone calls from their home at fixed-line rates.

"The combination of these two services eliminates the need for a fixed-line connection altogether," said Rudolf Gr"ger, chief executive officer of O2 in Germany.

As for the long-awaited delivery of 3G phones, O2 customers - like those of most other operators in Europe - will have to wait until the second half of 2003 when sufficient handsets are available.

Conclusion: time to get 3G-ed up?
3G services look a lot more real now than they did at the start of the year. Anyone considering using them for business should be aware that coverage is still not widespread and if the handsets don't meet Vodafone's standards, they might not meet yours.

However, as long as you don't expect to get 384 kbit/s everywhere and pick a system that falls back to GPRS, you may find a package that suits your business during the next few months. And with Wi-Fi as a bonus, it may be well worth looking into.

Are you ready for 3G? Or do you think 3G is not yet ready for you? Either way, join our discussion.