Euro 3G Launches Gather Steam
By Carlo Longino, Tue May 04 15:15:00 GMT 2004

Vodafone has fired up full 3G networks in 2 countries this week, forcing T-Mobile to accelerate its German launch. Is widespread 3G finally getting close?

Vodafone, which has been operating data-only 3G services for a few months, has started full commercial service in densely populated areas of Germany and Portugal.

Sure, 3 has been running 3G networks in a few countries for some time, but Vodafone packs more punch in the market than any other player, as evidenced by T-Mobile's subsequent announcement that it would bring forward its German 3G launch and start selling service immediately.

Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin has told pretty much anybody that would listen his company wouldn't offer consumer 3G service until handset technical issues were ironed out, and it appears that's the case with the Samsung device Vodafone's launching with. Its battery life is reportedly only slightly worse than today's 2.5G models, and 2G-to-3G handoffs don't force calls to drop. But most importantly, the Samsung device doesn't have the huge form factor and ugly looks that have plagued 3's devices.

While 3G service will soon be a viable option for mobile users across Europe, it doesn't look like it's going to see huge growth for a few more years. Researchers Analysys say subscriber figures will remain low until at least next year. The tipping point will be the handsets, both in quality and quantity, and it's unlikely that phones from the likes of Sanyo and LG, mostly unknown to European consumers, are going to make a significant dent.

In last year's blockbuster fourth quarter, handsets with integrated cameras, color screens and other new features were in the marketplace in sufficient numbers to entice subscribers to replace their existing handsets in droves -- something helped by a natural replacement cycle coming around as well. But the 3G phones appearing on the market don't offer too many additional features (beyond video calling, and the jury's still out on its attractiveness), so it's not likely they'll attract a lot of general consumers just yet.