Vodafone has formally launched a 3G service for data only, with no phones and no voice telephony.

It began trials of the service in the UK last month and announced it in Germany and Italy late last year.

More than three years after paying a high price for mobile broadband licenses around Europe, Vodafone is entering the new wireless market, but has ditched the phone. Instead laptop users get a dual-mode PC card for 3G and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks - the first of its kind in Europe, according to the company.

The Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data card will initially allow users to download data at speeds up to 384 Kbit/s and upload at speeds up to 64 Kbit/s, according to Vodafone spokeswoman Emma Conlon. The service is roughly 10 times faster than GPRS, she said.

Vodafone has not commented on why there are no phones, but industry sources pin the blame on the handsets which are, apparently, not yet up to snuff. Availability of light, low-power phones continues to be a major challenge facing operators. Europe's first 3G operator, Hutchison 3G, was forced to drop a planned Christmas promotion for a prepaid phone service after its suppliers, Motorola and NEC, failed to deliver enough lighter, less energy-consuming handsets before the holiday shopping rush.

Vodafone expects to add a commercial 3G phone service in the second half of this year, according to Conlon, but will depend on the availability of quality handsets. Commentator Guy Kewney of NewsWireless.net believes that won't happen until October.

The data card service will be launched next week in the UK and Germany, and in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden over the next four weeks, said Vodafone. The company will expand 3G coverage continually to its other markets over the next four years, it added. It also appears that coverage within the UK will be less than complete,

Although pricing for the new Mobile Connect service will vary from country to country, Conlon said it will be based on GPRS tariffs and include a premium fee, which she declined to provide. To use the service, customers must pay for a data card, monthly subscription and transmission usage.

The company's German subsidiary will offer customers two pricing options: one based on minutes; the other on data volume. Three different packages for each will be available. The Time XXL package, for instance, offers users 30 hours of connectivity for €69.60 (£47) per month; every additional 10 minutes cost €1.04 (70p). The Volume XXL package, also available for €69,90, includes 150 Mbytes; each additional megabyte costs €1.04.