Since the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, when the main operators outlined their 3G strategies, one clear leader has emerged in terms of launching services. No prizes for guessing who that is, say Keith Dyer
The undoubted leader amongst the major operators in the development of 3G services in the first half of 2004 has been Vodafone.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the company with the most leverage amongst the supplier, the most subscribers and, let it be said despite the vast licensing debts in two of its markets, the most money, should be pushing market development.
It was thought that perhaps smaller operators might be able to take a lead in 3G services, and of course in certain markets there have been example of operators taking a lead — perhaps opening a city-wide service here, or a campus-sized UMTS trial network elsewhere. Indeed there has been more than that from TeliaSonera, which opened up its 3G network in March.
But the main market mover up to this time of year has been Vodafone, followed by 3, as it begins to expand its range of services. Orange and T-Mobile have made the right kinds of noises, but neither have delivered quite to the level of Vodafone. Not to say that they cannot, of course. Both delivered extensive briefings on their planned strategies for 3G rollouts at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, and received much coverage for their pains within these pages.
But since then in terms of actual service announcements there has been little. Orange has continued its trials in Lilles, Toulouse and Cannes with its three equipment suppliers and is remaining tight-lipped on the outcome. One development is that Alcatel claimed to be have been selected as the primary service supplier for its Villes Pilotes project. The announcement appeared to position Alcatel as the main service supplier and integrator across all three projects, not just in Lilles where it is also the infrastructure equipment supplier (Nortel and Nokia are suppliers to the other two cities in the trial).
Alcatel appears to have sewn up the deal for the supply of application servers, service platforms, and management of service quality and performance. It is also integrating the new services into Orange’s existing service platforms. This growing relationship is one that will not surprise those who have seen Orange France increasingly become an arm of France Telecom. FT’s Thierry Breton said at Cannes that he saw Orange as a strategic provider of wireless broadband, alongside FT’s fixed line efforts, and that the long term goal was to harmonise broadband service delivery platforms across the fixed and mobile networks. In that scenario, Orange becomes just one access provider to a range of branded multi-media services.
T-Mobile as well has adopted a headline strategy that emphasises its abilities to be a wireless broadband supplier, integrating WLAN and 3G networks into one service offering (TM3 — T-Mobile Multimedia). Following its Cannes strategy briefing it added some beef to the broth at CeBit in mid-March. At CeBit the target was a May launch of sales of UMTS networks in Germany, Great Britain and Austria, for both businesses and consumers. At the time it showcased its data card product (called the T-Mobile Communication Centre) as well as the Sharp TM100 and Nokia7600 phones.
When Vodafone made a splash in early May, surprising some, that it was opening up its Vodafone Live! services to 3G networks, some interpreted T-Mobile’s reminder that it too was just about ready to launch consumer services as evidence that it had been hurried into doing so by Vodafone’s earlier-than-expected launch. In fact, T-Mobile was really repeating a previously stated deadline.
But it was that Vodafone announcement that really attracted the most attention. Coming in early May, perhaps a month or two sooner than some anticipated, Vodafone made it clear that it was well on the road to a smooth introduction of 3G services. The lack of general fanfare — there was no identifiable 3G launch — should not hide the fact that although operators may not boast about the technical aspects of 3G, they will focus on the richer user experience. A good example of this has been Vodafone’s advertising campaign to support Mobile Connect, its UMTS PC Card product.
But Vodafone has also been addressing an aspect of 3G that will be crucial — roaming. In April it announced 3G/UMTS roaming for data services between its networks in Spain, Portugal, the UK, THe Netherlands, Italy and Japan. A little later Vodafone Germany was added to that list.
Then, throughout May, Vodafone Live! with 3G was progressively launched in Portugal, The UK, Spain, Italy and Germany. The early handset used at launch was mainly the Samsung Z105, with the SonyEricsson Z1010 to follow in some markets. It should be noted that some of these launches were aimed at the “early adopters” — who were offered the chance to try out the services before full launch, with the resultant limited range of handsets.
Depending on how the other operators choose to launch, Vodafone may not end up being that far ahead in terms of full commercial services. But it is doing the market a favour by managing expectations, delivering only what it says it will and resisting the pressure to introduce fat call bundles. The next market snapshot in six months time should be truly fascinating.