Sonera Confuses 3G With 2G

This must be the broadest interpretation of 3G yet. Finnish telco Sonera Corp. (Nasdaq: SNRA) is so committed to its long-set 3G launch date of September 26 that it will have to use its current GPRS network and already-available GPRS handsets for the launch of its first "3G" services (see Sonera Readies 3G Launch).

This means the operator has effectively delayed the commercial launch of its 3G network but can hardly bring itself to say so. Yet it persists in stating that September 26 will see the launch of 3G services, even though they will not be running on a UMTS network or involve 3G handsets. The phones were supposed to be supplied by Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which had set the same date for the official launch of its 3G models.

To be honest, the joint launch on such a specific date always looked like an enormous banana skin (see Finns Head for Limp Launch).

So instead of a proper 3G launch, the company will kickstart some new services (which appear to be little more than picture messaging and WAP-based information) that can run on its existing 2G network and can be used by people with Java-enabled MMS phones.

This is not a good move, believes John Fletcher, a senior consultant at Analysys Consulting, who is in no mood to mince words: "This sounds like a major marketing gaffe. To call something 3G when it clearly isn't is just stupid. You would have to be pretty gullible to believe this is 3G. Who would have cared if they had just said they were postponing the launch? No one. This is bad news for Sonera and bad news for 3G."

And he hasn't finished. "You can't launch 3G services on a 2G network. It doesn't make any sense. This whole idea is a retrograde step. This has real potential to cause long-term damage to Sonera. What will they sell as '3G' after this? Will they call their true 3G services 4G instead? This is the sort of crass thing you would expect from an old PTT. What's wrong with launching these services as GPRS? It's nothing to be ashamed of -- there's nothing wrong with GPRS. This is a folly."

So what's the hold-up? A "technological delay" is blamed for the lack of working 3G hardware at this time. It's worth noting here that as well as being the intended source of UMTS handsets, Nokia is also the supplier of Sonera's core and access UMTS network.

"In spite of the delay and slower overall start in UMTS technology deployment globally, we continue to be in the vanguard of the development of next generation services," proclaims the company's official release. "The services that we will launch in September will be the first step, after which we can continue with the development work."

A senior Sonera executive confirms the worst. "The 3G network will not be available on 26 September," Sonera vice president Pekka Keskiivari tells Unstrung. "The services will be used with existing handsets." So will there be any Nokia 3G phones available at all at this launch? "I would have to ask you to direct that question to Nokia," says Keskiivari. Do we detect some tension here?

Keskiivari also confirmed that it will be 2003 before commercial services are available on Sonera's 3G network, making reference to the official wording that lays the blame at Nokia's door. Commercial services will be available "as soon as there is a sufficient number of UMTS-enabled terminals available and this is feasible in view of the maturity of the network technology."

So what has Nokia to say about this? Well, they're being careful with their words, that's for sure. "We are launching the terminal on September 26," states Nokia spokeswoman Maija Tommila. But will the phones be used for Sonera's 3G services? Will we see the phone working? "There will be some demonstrations." With Sonera? "Sonera representatives will be there. I don't have a clear understanding of what network will be involved," she adds. Unstrung will be looking for a strategically placed van with portable test kit on the day.

Then, as if to suggest it was never Nokia's intention to have its handsets used for Sonera's 3G commercial launch, Tommila adds: "Our plans have not changed."

An interesting suggestion that will not help relations at Sonera HQ, we're sure.

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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