Carriers eager to start getting money back from 3G are lining up competing datacard offerings for business this month.
Orange is launching a promotional roadshow today focussing on its coverage, T-Mobile is promoting a service which combines Wi-Fi and cellular data, and Vodafone - the first on the scene - is pushing ahead with trials for a handset it plans to launch this autumn. The two exceptions are 3, with its consumer-focussed services, and mm02, which has yet to join the fun at all.
Orange will be making much of the fact that, reaching 66 percent of the UK population, its 3G network has the best coverage. During September it is running a series of seminars at major cities. Small businesses then get a separate series, with the added attraction of sports celebrities telling them about leadership and teamwork. "We will reach 80 percent of the population next year, and have been having good feedback from customers," said an Orange spokesman.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile's main selling point is the fact that users get their 3G/GSM and Wi-Fi all on one bill. "We saw that wireless LAN could become a competitive element, and decided it would be better to participate in the market and make it complementary," said Jay Saw, hotspot manager of T-Mobile UK. "We own and operate our own Wi-Fi network, and are the largest Wi-Fi operator in the Western hemisphere. We can use wireless LAN as a key differentiator for a multi-access pitch against the likes of Vodafone and Orange."
In the US, a third of T-Mobile's mobile subscribers also take the WLAN service, and he expects that to be repeated in the UK: "A lot of IT mangers buying telecoms are having difficulty marrying up Wi-Fi and 3G. We're trying to take away the pain of that decision." On coverage, Lampton reckons T-Mobile is not trailing far: "We are very aware of what our competitors are doing," he said. "You can be sure that our coverage is going to be on a par with them."
Meanwhile, Vodafone is preparing to follow up its data-card service, launched in April and reviewed here, with a handset service, currently on trial with a few thousand customers in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Handsets are still a sore point with carriers blaming poor quality for delays to their services.
All three datacard contenders cost around £75 per month, for almost unlimited use. T-Mobile's £70 deal costs has a fair usage limit of 3,000 minutes per month ("and if you needed more than that, you probably need professional help," quipped a spokesman), while Orange and Vodafone have a usage limit of 1,000 MB, for £75 and £85 respectively.
O2 is keeping cool about the whole thing: "O2 made a conscious decision not to be at the cutting edge with 3G. Until you have a sufficiently critical mass of devices and choice, the technology will never really take off," Peter Rampling, O2's head of business acquisition told the Scotsman.
And Hutchison 3, which has reached its target of a million users some months late, has still made a loss of more than a billion dollars in the first half of 2004. While the company says it is on target, commentators point out a flaw in its progress so far. Despite 3G's focus on data services, 3's customers aren't picking them up - only about 14 percent of 3's revenues come from data, which is actually lower than providers who are relying on earlier technologies.