Sizing up the worlds first commercially released 3G phone
Photo's courtesy of NTT; Stuart Braun

The world-first launch of NTT DoCoMo’s third generation mobile phone network represents a quantum leap into mobile cyberspace. Stuart Braun goes online.

outed as the greatest telecommunications revolution since the invention of the telegraph, the third generation (3G) mobile phone, which is to be released by NTT DoCoMo this month, caps Japan’s phoenix rising over the world of telecommunications technology. Elsewhere, the mobile phone world waits relatively incommunicado, watching while Japan takes on the brave new world of third generation - as opposed to the current 2G standard  - broadband Internet- and video enabled communications. FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access) is NTT DoCoMo’s mobile broadband weapon, facilitating a download speed 40 times quicker than conventional wireless services along with fast and smooth communication of large-volume data such as video images. While real-time video linkup - the high resolution FOMA video screen, in addition to providing an image of the receiver, includes a small sub-image of the caller (audio is heard via an earphone) - will be the big sell, cheaper 3G phones will maximize 3Gs lightning Internet access and unprecedented voice clarity. But taking the leap is one thing. Landing is another. Pundits are claiming that’s it’s all too expensive, too overblown, too Herculean a task in the short term. And they might be right. Nonetheless, the seed has been sown. As ever, Japan’s mobile phone users are raring, recession or not, to take their keitai to the next level.


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From their architect designed bunkers in the hills of Silicon Valley, PC manufacturers are waiting (some might say in horror) to see the results of a bold technological innovation that, if successful, might spell the premature end of an ailing empire. The PC world surely predicted the ramifications of a breakthrough in broadband wireless technology; however, as with the PC game market, they didn’t, or chose not to, see the Japanese coming. Even at this early stage, it could be a case of too little too late if the popularity of Internet enabled mobile phones in Japan is anything to go by. Of the 65million handsets currently operating in Japan, 40 million are connected to the Internet. That’s about 44 million more than in Europe, whose ailing WAP internet services still looks archaic next to i-mode, EZweb and the like.

Less than two weeks into the FOMA launch, the 3G skeptics might already be eating words like “premature.” Reuters initially reported “low expectations by retailers and customers alike,” while commentator Matsushita Shuji-the “Mobile Ojisan”-said that “the next-generation phone service has had trouble everywhere.” But only two weeks out from the 3G start-up, NTT DoCoMo’s head of international PR, Takumi Suzuki, reported that the FOMA terminals-the top-of-the line videophone sells for over JY60,000-are virtually sold out. “We are very very happy,” he says. And how’s the network holding up? “No problems, it is running very smoothly,” he adds somewhat nonchalantly. It shouldn’t be surprising. While there were early software glitches during the FOMA trial started in May, the network was able to maintain a 384kbps download speed for most of the 4500 users in the trial. The telco giant might then be revising up its target subscriber figure-150,000 users by the end of March 2002 and 6 million by the end of March 2004.

DoCoMo has run a deft PR campaign, aiming its publicity less at the consumer-the telecom giant gave retailers fewer than 30,000 handsets for the launch-and more at the corporations, the decision makers, the press and the international community. In a building next to the Diet, the futuristic FOMA demonstration bunker features nubile, bilingual DoCoMo girls taking visitors through the paces on the hottest phones on the planet. Not open to the public, this is a high-tech 3G playground that aims to sell the concept to the people who drive mobile technology trends. But more than a trend, this is a revolution say DoCoMo, one that will supersede much of the hallowed ground of PC technology.

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The pocket PC has long been touted as the key to incorporating Internet, MP3, video streaming and smart card (which will itself incorporate personal banking, shopping, etc) technology into one easy package. But FOMA has jumped the gun. Soon you’ll be able to swipe your phone at the conbini or at the bar, receive a virtual receipt, and, if need be, loan your friend some money via a few strokes of the keypad. And as for the users, they don’t have to be anthropomorphic, says DoCoMo, which believes the Japanese 3G market could expand to 570 million by 2010 if pets, cars, bikes and household appliances are factored in. Strap a miniature videophone to your dog or cat and you can locate it if it's lost. DoCoMo predicts that up to 90 million TV sets will feature wireless terminals that can access broadband video content. This brave new world of wireless video terminals will also be utilized by up to 40 million refrigerators, allowing users to view their fridge contents while at the supermarket. DoCoMo has cleverly paved the way for multiterminal use by including a UIM (User Identity Module) card in FOMA handsets that will allow mobile users to change between phones without the unwieldy paperwork. While i-mode customers are currently limited to using a single terminal, FOMA will let users mix and match depending on their needs, their mood-or, most specifically, their fashion whims.

To prove the durability of the 3G phone, DoCoMo has co-opted Takenaka Corporation, Japan’s and one of the world’s largest construction companies, to employ FOMA as the eyes and ears of its mobile, and global, workforce. During the initial trial Takenaka employees will use FOMA handsets for video streaming to aid product promotions and operating instructions, to take and transmit still pictures (for the instant relay of reports from manufacturing sites and updates of work in progress), and for realtime video (monitoring security, weather conditions, etc.).

Hearts and minds
Backed by DoCoMo’s massive 60 percent share of Japan’s mobile phone market and a 6-12 month break on the rest of the 3G pack, FOMA looks a good bet to wipe the floor with the opposition. But with the future of telecommunications at stake, the J-Phones and AUs are not going to lie down and take a beating from Japan’s teleco titan. J-Phone is making a sustained effort to counter DoCoMo’s “revolutionary” rhetoric by talking of “evolutionary” technology that is merely an extension of the current service. “Look, we already have the Internet, phone cameras, enhanced voice quality and so on,” says Hiroyuki Asano, Deputy General Manager of J-Phone’s Public Relations Group. The real test for 3G will be service, he adds. Due in large part to prohibitory costs that will limit the range of “early adapters,” FOMA is targeting corporate instead of consumer culture, says Asano. It is in the latter area that J-Phone, whose 18 percent share of the mobile market is made up largely of young women in their late teens and early 20s, wants to consolidate its 3G niche. “Inventing new mobile services which anticipate and respond to the needs of our users: their eating habits, shopping preferences and hobbies…our customers will create completely personalized identities with their mobile phones, and will access only the information and services they want: anytime and anywhere,” runs J-Phone’s PR battle cry.

But behind the feel-good pitch lies a 3G vision that will take J-Phone beyond the Japanese market. When J-Phone launch their own 3G service-that will essentially mimic FOMA’s multimedia features-next June, one primary difference is that the W-CDMA network upon which the service is based will comply with a unified, worldwide standard that will facilitate global roaming in over 100 countries. Enter Vodaphone, the world's largest mobile communications company, which has recently taken a strategic stake in J-Phone. At a packed news conference announcing the deal, Vodaphone chief Chris Gent proudly held up a J-Phone handset. “They are the best in the world,” he said, eyeing the sleek design, still-shot camera, large color screen and Internet options of a phone light years ahead of anything available in Europe and the US. Jumping into bed with the Japanese will be crucial for Vodaphone, Nokia and the like if they are to get 3G off the ground before diminishing telecommunications investment funding dries up. “In Europe, telcos have been moaning under so heavy a burden caused by the insane frequency spectrum bid...None of the operators have even a penny left to spend on the future phone system now,” noted Shuji in a cnet article last May. Nokia is hoping to launch its 3G service in 2003, however the grim reality is that the investment-J-Phone, a minnow next to NTT DoCoMo, will have spent JY230 billion (US$2 billion) by next March on its 3G project-is so huge that Nokia's 3G remains a far-off vision.

But in Japan, 3G is reality. While J-Phone courts the offshore market, KDDI, which owns AU, Japan’s second-largest mobile carrier, are gearing up to take direct aim at DoCoMo’s initial 3G monopoly. Having upgraded to the CDMA 2000 3G standard, which will be picked up in North America, Central America and South America and parts of Asia, KDDI are ready to take on DoCoMo but remains cautious. “The problem is cost,” said KDDI president Tadashi Onodera in a recent interview. “If you download streaming video, its cost may be several hundred to several thousands of yen. That won’t work. When you get the bill, that’s a problem,” he adds. While “the costs of regular broadband Internet services to the home are going way down, [and] many wireless customers think high-speed data transmission costs should be flat, or should be cheap. It’s not easy to do that with the wireless communication business.” Another headache will be the storing of data. “Compacting content will be a task, while the ability to secure transactions will be key,” says David Kinney, Tech Support Manager at GOL. He says it won’t be easy. “Still, I am excited at the prospect of being able to compare prices from Amazon while standing in Kinokuniya, or of mobile video conferencing in light of the current travel conditions,” he continues. He remains prudent, however, saying that the status of 3G technology amounts to opening “a few new doors.”

Such pragmatism is unique within the world’s most voracious mobile phone market. While technofads and fashion, particularly among young women-note the power of keitai goddesses Ayumi Hamasaki and Norika Fujiwara-have driven mobile phone trends, Japan, and in particular Tokyo, has integrated the keitai as a fundamental part of its culture. To see the dextrous thumbs of what William Gibson dubbed the “Mobile Girl” in action highlights the fact that, in Japan, communication is the community. With 3G having the potential to substantially enhance the scope of Japan’s mobile world, few are going to want to miss out.



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