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3 Keeps Europe Waiting

Europe's mobile sector is still waiting for the true commercial launch of 3G services by a major operator, as U.K. greenfield operator Hutchison 3G UK Ltd. passed up a classic marketing opportunity today.

This being the third day of the third month of 2003 – 03/03/03 – it seemed a ideal opportunity to go crazy with the operator's brand, '3' (see 3 at Last, 3 at Laaast! and Copywriters on Acid). That same garish logo is also being used by Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.'s (Hong Kong: 0013) eight other 3G operators.

Instead, the U.K. carrier is still only taking pre-orders for handsets, suggesting there are still some launch issues to be ironed out. The operator's resident defender of the truth, corporate communications manager Ed Brewster, swears the handsets will be with paying customers before the end of March [ed. note: this year?].

Analysts at Lehman Brothers, however, believe it might be another six weeks before those early customers get the chance to put the operator's services, such as video calls, though their paces.

Hutchison has been testing its network and handsets for months to ensure robust data services and the assured handover of voice calls between the new wideband CDMA (WCDMA) network and mmO2 plc's GSM (2G) network, onto which 3 customers can roam for nationwide coverage. Hutchison is vague about the current coverage of its 3G network.

The 3G newcomer has repeatedly stated that it will not have paying customers on its network until it is 100 percent satisfied that everything will work to its customers' satisfaction. Ensuring such quality of service is key not only for the early success of 3, but for the entire industry. A regular topic of conversation at the recent 3GSM Congress in Cannes was just how important the early success of Hutchison will be for the credibility of 3G as a whole.

In addition to the companies directly involved, such as infrastructure suppliers Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and 3G partners NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY) and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE), Hutchison's competitors are praying that 3G does not get branded as a hopeless waste of money. Indeed, the prevailing opinion at Cannes was that a successful launch – whenever it happens – would give the whole sector a boost, and even accelerate the rollout plans of such key carriers as Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD).

So it's not like the pressure is on Hutchison, or anything like that...

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung

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