3G Cellular Set For Take-Off

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2001

Third-generation cellular is nearly upon us, but tracking its development can make your head spin.

by Daniel Scuka

phoneBY EARLY SUMMER, THAT celly in your pocket will be as outdated as last week's sushi. In May, NTT DoCoMo is planning to spark up Japan's first third-generation (3G) cellular network, expected to provide hyperfast wireless Web surfing. Competing mobile operators J-Phone and KDDI are scheduled to bring their own 3G networks online around October, making 2001 the coolest year yet to access the mobile Net in Japan. But with all the frenetic activity, tracking 3G developments has been tougher than watching the bouncing ball in a karaoke video. See if you can follow along.

This is 3G's biggest and most hyped promise, but it won't reach the promised 2- to 3-Mbps benchmark for a while, not until the network infrastructure, the handsets, and the data servers are tested to full capacity. NTT DoCoMo's speed will initially be limited to some 64 Kbps, while KDDI and J-Phone aim to beat this in order to compensate for later starts. J-Phone CEO Koichi Sakata said last September that his firm will offer 128-Kbps speeds throughout its service area from the time of launch. KDDI will launch at 144 Kbps. Why the cold feet? All cellular operators here are having trouble coping with surging data traffic, and no one's in any position to turn the tap on full until network stability is assured.

nokiaThe Content Developers
It may be that only a few sites will actually offer content that takes advantage of the expanded bandwidth. One project manager at a Tokyo Web development house said that initially, he expects to see enhanced animated characters, better games, and other incremental improvements, as opposed to streaming anything, as developers carefully watch what speeds the networks actually provide and -- perhaps more importantly -- how many existing customers actually switch to the new handsets. Besides, even if DoCoMo launches its 3G i-mode service at or near 64 Kbps, that won't be any screaming improvement over what KDDI's EZWeb service (transmitted over a cdmaOne wireless network) has offered since late 1999.

Infrastructure building is well under way, and major system integrators, including NEC, Fujitsu, and Matsushita Electric, have been hard at work installing base stations and switching infrastructure for the mobile operators. NEC is also a prime subcontractor for J-Phone, as is Sweden's Ericsson. DoCoMo's service areas will initially include Tokyo, expanding nationwide by October 2002, while J-Phone -- as a further point of competition -- will start in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, and expand into most other major cities by April 2002, somewhat faster than DoCoMo. KDDI will similarly expand its coverage. All this network building will cost. "Overlaying W-CDMA [3G] infrastructure on the existing network will require a great deal of capital expenditure, says Shiro Tsuda, executive manager at NTT's Network HQ, adding, "We will limit service areas for the first phases."

phoneThe Handsets
The handset makers have already completed 3G pre-production models, and they are, in a word, hot (except Ericsson's, which one developer here described as "old fashioned"). Most models will provide screen resolutions some four times better than at present, Java capability, an integrated CMOS digital video camera (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor cameras consume less power than CCD imaging chips), and some 2 megs of onboard memory (the NEC 3G i-mode phone will use Intel's StrongARM processor, providing the capability to handle MPEG4 video files). Many models will have slots for Compact Flash, Sony Memory Stick, or Panasonic SD cards, allowing users to bring along an entire day's worth of music or other files. (IBM already makes a 1-GB Compact Flash-format minidrive.) See the images for an idea of the kinds of handsets manufacturers are planning.

docomoBattery Life
For this initial generation of 3G phones, battery life will be reduced over the current 250 to 350 hours (standby), since the additional memory, improved displays, video cameras, and processors will burn through more wattage, but this should quickly improve. "The first generation will take a power hit, but the battery technology should be up to speed about six months after the first models launch," says Juergen Specht, a wireless developer with startup Nooper.com.

Java handsets were supposed to have made the current phones in Japan a bit more lively, and then 3G was supposed to come along a cycle or two later and make things a hell of a lot more lively. What happened instead is that the Java handsets have been delayed and will be reaching the shelves just before 3G hits. Which leads to a marketing mess: Why would anybody buy a mere Java phone when they can wait a few months and buy a 3G Java phone? Because they wouldn't know the difference, and no one's in a hurry to educate them. Developers, meanwhile, don't know whether they should write for Java's enhanced functionality, 3G's enhanced bandwidth, or both. Good thing Japanese customers, while picky, don't complain too much.

phoneThe Prices
There's no word yet on handset costs, but one 2G model presently offered by J-Phone and equipped with a digital camera retails for around ¥44,000, so a figure in the ¥40-50,000 range may be realistic. Data packet fees, meanwhile, should come down. DoCoMo has said it will reduce i-mode's present ¥0.3 per 128 bytes fee (at this level, a single MP3 file could easily cost ¥10,000), and J-Phone has already announced that its packet fees will be cut to a hundredth of current costs. Other operators will follow suit. The price slashing won't hurt much: In November, NTT DoCoMo announced FY2000 first-half profits of ¥217.5 billion, up some 22 percent from the previous year.

Juergen Specht, an amateur photographer and wireless developer with startup Nooper.com, took these photos of 3G cellphone mockups with his Nikon digital camera at the CEATEC expo in Tokyo. He then uploaded them to his personal site (www.juergenspecht.com), told two of his friends, and posted a note to the Keitai-L mailing list. Shortly thereafter the site was getting nearly 9,000 daily page views -- up from the usual 250.

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