T-Mobile and Orange both reached milestones in the rollout of 3G services for the UK this week, making available their first high-speed laptop datacards.

The introduction of the two new 3G services means competition for Vodafone, which previously had the UK's only data-centric 3G network, and Hutchison Whampoa's 3 UK, which operates the only 3G service offering handsets. The other operators currently only offer services over laptop data card, though all are planning to introduce handsets. (For more on the gradual merging of 3G and Wi-Fi, see Techworld's feature.)

T-Mobile's launch has been gradual. The operator originally announced its UK network in March and switched it on in May, even advertising the service and datacard on its website - but only about 150 corporate partners, including Hewlett-Packard, were granted the use of the network for testing purposes. Monday's announcement marks the first time that UK customers have been able to get their hands on a T-Mobile datacard.

Initially users will only get access speeds of 128Kbit/s, short of the 384Kbit/s promised in March. Speeds will gradually increase to 384Kbit/s in the coming months, T-Mobile said. The company said its 3G coverage is currently best in London and is gradually extending across the rest of the country.

"3G data cards give customers internet access at similar rates to those they experience with high speed fixed-line internet access," said Brian McBride, managing director of T-Mobile UK, in a statement. "The switch to 3G is not just a matter of speed, it's equivalent to the move from the typewriter to the PC."

Along with the card, users can subscribe to a flat-rate pricing plan giving unlimited access to the operator's Wi-Fi network as well as GPRS and 3G, T-Mobile said. (For details see the feature: Wi-Fi and 3G will eventually merge.) A software package allows "seamless" roaming between different networks, depending on coverage, the company promised. However, because the datacard has only 3G and GPRS built in, customers desiring Wi-Fi access must either have Wi-Fi built into their laptops or a separate Wi-Fi card. Datacards combining cellular and Wi-Fi are expected later this year. T-Mobile counts 500 Wi-Fi locations in the UK, including Texaco petrol stations, with a total of 7,000 worldwide.

The access bundle costs £199 plus a monthly fee of £70, with a 12-month contract. T-Mobile is currently offering a promotional deal with three months of free access.

Orange on Monday also launched its UK network - its first in Europe - and made a datacard immediately available. The company said it has been testing the network extensively with customers such as Microsoft, and now has coverage in most major cities, with access speeds of up to 384Kbit/s.

Orange's 3G Mobile Access Card, based on the Merlin U530 from Lucent Technologies and Novatel Wireless, is available for £85 if customers also buy an unlimited access plan for £75 per month; with lower-cost plans the access card costs up to £255.

The company won't be marketing products for consumers, such as handsets, until later this year. "We believe there are still some issues in ensuring the maximum consumer experience," Nigel Hall, 3G launch director for Orange UK, told the Financial Times. "Our intention is to launch [handsets] later on this year when the devices and network components all come together."

Industry observers have said that Vodafone, which offers a 500MB/month service for £10 more than Orange's unlimited service, may be forced to lower its prices.