DoCoMo launches Third-Generation Service--at last
By Martyn Williams
(IDG) -- With more of a whimper than a bang, NTT DoCoMo began the world's first fully commercial third-generation (3G) cellular service on Monday morning in Tokyo. The low-profile launch, which came with no ceremonies or events, reflects DoCoMo's caution regarding the service until it feels confident about the range of content and terminals that it can offer.
The service, known as Foma, is available immediately in the Tokyo metropolis and nearby city of Yokohama. Service will spread to the rest of the nation, beginning in major cities, from the second quarter of 2002, according to the carrier's schedule.
Based on the W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) system, the new service has a theoretical maximum data transfer speed of 384 kilobits per second--26 times the highest-speed cellular service DoCoMo offers today and 6 times that of the fastest service offered by DoCoMo's competitors.
The high-speed service is packet-based, which means users pay according to the amount of data sent and received, and will form the basis of a faster version of the I-mode wireless Internet service. The service will also be available for users with PC-Card data modems.
A second data service, circuit-switched 64 kbps, is also available and will be used by the much-hyped mobile videoconferencing service. DoCoMo opted to put this service on a circuit-switched service because it will offer a time-based charge, which is similar, though more expensive, than regular telephone calls.
DoCoMo has signed up ten companies to make handsets although only two have products ready for Monday's launch. Products available include a standard terminal, the N2001 manufactured by NEC, similar to current handsets; a video-phone handset, the P2101V manufactured by Matsushita Communication Industrial; and a PC-Card data modem terminal, the P2401 from Matsushita.
Compared to current handsets, the new telephones command a price premium.
At a DoCoMo shop in central Tokyo, which began selling the handsets on Monday morning, the N2001 standard terminal costs $358, the P2101V video type carries a $525 price tag and the P2401 data card costs $190. The latest second-generation I-mode handsets generally sell for between $167 and $250 when first launched.
Despite the hefty price tag, Keiji Tachikawa, president and chief executive of NTT DoCoMo believes the company can meet its subscriber goal. "We are confident we can get 150,000 this year," he said referring to the current fiscal year that ends on the last day of March 2002.
Telecommunications operators around the world are expected to closely watch the service to see if it lives up to expectations and whether they have a chance of making back the vast sums of money many shelled out for 3G licenses in early 2000.
Since that time, the image of 3G services has lost its shine as companies, which have seen their stock prices plummet over the past year, begin to balk at the cost of establishing the new networks and start to reevaluate whether people really need mobile videoconferencing.
The company was running at full speed towards the May launch date when, in February of this year, a series of high-profile glitches with handsets for the company's new Java-based service sent a jolt through the company.
A more cautious air fell on the company and, as the 3G launch date loomed, DoCoMo began to realize that all of the pieces needed to launch the service might not be in place in time. With just two weeks to go before the launch of the service, the company decided to take a more cautious approach and start the service as a controlled test.
The test period provided some breathing room for DoCoMo and the handset makers to iron bugs out of their systems. By the beginning of September, engineers had identified 448 problems associated with the network although all had been resolved by Monday's launch, says Norio Hasegawa, a spokesperson for NTT DoCoMo.
However, problems with the video-on-demand service remain. While videoconferencing is available immediately, the video-on-demand service that was offered during the trial period has been pulled from the launch menu to give the company and handset makers more time to iron out the bugs.
Over the next few months, as the technology gets into the hands of more and more users and content developers begin to learn what they can do with the service, operators around the world will be anxiously looking on too.
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