Orange has launched a 3G version of its Unik service in France, adding fast data services and new handsets, and brightening the prospects of the UMA protocol, which can switch phone calls between Wi-Fi and mobile cellular networks, on which Unik is based.
The 3G Unik includes new handsets, the Samsung P270 and the Sony Ericsson G705u, which go some way to remedy UMA's poor handset support. The G705u, Sony Ericsson's first UMA handset, is a UMA version of the new G705 web-oriented phone.
The UK's first UMA service, BT Fusion, was a failure, which was finally closed on 2 September, and has been replaced by the Total Broadband Anywhere package that does not switch calls between indoor and outdoor networks.
Orange claims greater success, with a million subscribers for Unik, which launched in 2006. The 3G version is only available in France, but the Unik service is available in the UK, Spain and Poland, under the names Unique, Unico and Unifon. Orange promised to launch it in the other three countries but would not set a launch date. The company would not say how many Unique subscribers it had gained in the UK since the service's launch here one year ago.
Orange has also promised an enterprise service called Onsite Coverage, based on picocells.
UMA's lack of 3G support has been a handicap: "It should have been 3G from Day One," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. "The lack of 3G support originally was one of the factors that made it unpalatable to most operators."
Sales through Orange should justify other UMA handsets. Bubley predicts: "If Orange can guarantee a few hundred thousand sales of a new device, it's probably worth doing some custom design. Especially if the phone can come in both UMA and non-UMA versions based on the same platform, or if there's a clever way by which the manufacturer only pays for the UMA stack if it gets activated."
But UMA won't set the world on fire: "My original forecasts (made in 2005) were for 4.7m UMA phones to sell in 2008, and 6.7m in 2009. At the time everyone thought I was being horribly pessimistic, but frankly even those look over-enthusiastic based on what we're seeing in terms of current deployments. I'd expect 2008 to be more like two to three million, assuming Orange upgrades existing subs, sells some new ones, and T-Mobile carries on selling [email protected]"