Operators Line Up for UMTS

2003 will be a critical year for 3G developments in Europe, with up to 43 operators launching some sort of service, according to research firm EMC.

That's the number of operators expected to announce the availability of UMTS services in Western Europe this calendar year, but that number could fall as the year goes on, admits EMC research manager Mike Woolfrey. "Those numbers could shift to the right," he says (see table below).

Table 1: Projected UMTS Launches: Western Europe
Q1 2003 Q2 2003 Q3 2003 Q4 2003 Q1 2004 Q2 2004 Q3 2004 Q4 2004
Predicted # of 3G launches 11 6 9 17 14 0 1 4
Source: EMC (www.emc-database.com)

Because the numbers are EMC's own predictions, rather than projections based on announcements from operators, Woolfrey is reluctant to prophesy which carriers will launch when. To qualify as having properly launched a 3G service in EMC's eyes, a consumer must be able to purchase a handset and services. "Friendly-user" trials do not count as launches. We're with EMC on that!

Even so, Woolfrey says that the scale of these potential launches will vary, and that there is an onus on a company such as Hutchison 3G UK Ltd. to launch as soon as possible and as broadly as possible "because it needs to start paying for its license." Hutchison is new to the U.K. market and has no 2G business of its own, and thus no revenues at present.

EMC still expects Hutchison to be the first European operator with commercial 3G services, followed by its fellow Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0013) vehicle H3G in Italy. The parent company's chairman Li Ka-shing said at the end of last week that the delayed British and Italian launches were a priority for the company and that 3G services will launch on its home turf in Hong Kong -- where Hutchison Telecommunications (Hong Kong) Ltd. still uses the Orange brand -- after the first quarter. All are launching with the brand "3" (see Copywriters on Acid).

Ed Brewster, corporate communications boss at the U.K. operator, says reports that the operator will launch in March -- on March 3 specifically, it being 03/03/03 -- are just idle media speculation [ed. note: Is there any other kind?] that has been accepted as fact. "We should be in a position to put phones with services in the hands of paying customers early this year," says Brewster, refusing to specify any further.

Another figure being bandied about in "the media" is that more than 10,000 people have signed up for a 3G phone on the operator's Website. But this isn't true either. That's the number of people -- including this writer -- who have registered for further information, and to have the handsets and services demonstrated to them in one of Hutchison's "flagship stores" (see Much Ado About Hutch). These demonstrations will happen "in the next few weeks," says Brewster.

Details of the handsets (two from H3G and one from Motorola Inc.) and the services can be found on the operator's site.

Of those set to be right behind Hutchison are Mobilkom Austria AG & Co. KG (see Austria Claims Euro 3G First), TeliaSonera AB's (Nasdaq: TLSN) Finnish operation (see 3G Redefined, Finnish Style), and any number of Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) operations (see Vodafone Delaying 3G Plans?). But while this year will see an important test of the WCDMA network and handset technology, the appeal of services, and the variations in pricing and marketing, will it necessarily be a key year for subscriber uptake? And is Hutchison's delay the terrible news that some commentators believe it to be? No on both counts, says Neale Anderson, a wireless analyst at Ovum Ltd. "It would have been better for Hutchison if it could have launched at the same time as the Orange SA (London/Paris: OGE) SPV and Vodafone's Live! service," says the Ovum man (see Orange Uncovers Its SPV and Vodafone Goes Live!). "That way it could have been competing on a level field with those launches in the run-up to Christmas; but now, a few months more doesn't make too much difference. It is more important that it launches with as few glitches as possible, and it is wise not to specify a date. It's quite important to avoid as much negative publicity as possible, and time spent sorting out problems now is time well spent."

Anderson does not envisage many 3G launches, however. He believes 2003 will instead be a "boring year full of belt-tightening," and that most UMTS activity will be around testing and corporate trials. He says Ovum does not expect there to be many 3G subscribers in Europe by the end of 2003 -- "in the thousands" -- and that those operators with existing 2.5G networks will be concentrating on making services such as picture messaging work well. "They need to sort out 2G voice quality, which is taking a hit, and generate some cash flow. And interoperability for picture messaging is essential," notes Anderson. Frankly, we couldn't agree more (see Fingers Crossed for MMS).

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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