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THOUGHT: Is the public ready for data over 3G networks?
Posted by PPCW.Net Editori - on Monday, 15.03.04 - 11:48:37 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 6586x
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Contributed by Dr. Wolfgang Irber, PPCW.Net Reader and Business Professional

It's all about data. Right now you hear it from every operator that is going to launch 3G networks and Wi-Fi hot-spots these days. We are promised lots of bandwidth over wireless networks, wherever you go, wherever you are: easy and fast access to the Internet, to corporate networks, to stream movies, all made possible by the introduction of UMTS (W-CDMA). A whole new world is promised to us. But is the public ready for it?

If you listen to all the announcements you may get the impression that everybody is waiting to rush into the stores once the network has been opened to the public. But I guess most of us followed the news about what was and is happening, e.g., in Japan, the UK, and Italy, all countries where UMTS networks went commercial already some while ago. And as most of us will know, not much has happened in fact when it comes to data. But what went wrong?

It surely is a combination of a couple of reasons of which technical issues are quite significant. But we cannot blame just everything to the techniques: I simply observe the public appears to be not ready yet. Of course, we geeks are fascinated by the switch in radio access technology from GSM to UMTS and all the benefits that come along. But does the public care as well? Let's look around, not using a geek's perspective.

Using a phone for accessing the Internet is not in the public awareness
From all so-called wireless data traffic, SMS or text messaging is still accounting for most of mobile data, with a high number of SMS sent everyday. And indeed, if I watch the people next to me, almost everybody is using SMS, even my 70 year-old Dad. But what is about GPRS or using the phone as a data terminal to wirelessly accessing the Internet? How many of your non Tec-savvy friends or neighbors do it? Is there anybody at all you know about?

An excellent reflection of public awareness of any kind is the daily TV or movie program. When did you see somebody on TV or in a movie using a phone or a PDA to access the Internet via GPRS? I never did! Well, I may have missed some, but no matter how we look at it, using GPRS or any other 2.5G or 3G technology is definitely not a common thing, not even fancy enough for Hollywood!

My personal observation simply tells me that - despite the operators' marketing efforts - wireless Internet access over the phone network is not in the public awareness at all: a phone is a phone for the overwhelming majority of us, and not a data terminal!

Hence, in order to make GPRS and UMTS a data success story, the public, which is simply reflected by our friends and neighbors, has to change the way they communicate and access the Internet. But changing well established behaviors is a slow process and strongly depends on the prize. Some early adopters always try right from the beginning, however, when is the mass market ready to follow? And more important: what is the point that makes everybody wanting to follow?

SMS and phone calls cover all the public needs: what comes next?
Using the cell phone was initially driven by displaying a new and fancy lifestyle to others. Only later this was outweighed by the convenience factor. Or SMS: the usage of relatively cheap SMS was first driven by the initially very high connection costs from mobile to mobile, later by the convenience factor again.

Today, both are in combination the perfect means of communication and cover everything the majority of us needs: a phone call is the direct, SMS the indirect option, the latter nonetheless with instant and automatic delivery.

But what's next? The public is surely not using data only because it is there. MMS, for instance, is not really taking off even though camera phones are selling well. GPRS is currently only important for a few business users, and the always mentioned video telephony already flopped for wired telephony and is in the current technological stage just disappointing over UMTS.

So what comes next? When is the public going to see data transfer over phone networks as a useful tool? Honestly, I don't know. I only can imagine that some service is coming up that is initially providing a fancy status, and is later driven by the convenience on substitute of something else.

Final Conclusion

When the UMTS licenses were sold, an operator was once quoted with "We need to create a demand for something the people don't yet have a demand for". Obviously, the current idea for 3G networks is to provide bandwidth without having a real concept of how to use it; that may sound stupid, but that's perfectly OK. Somebody is certainly coming up with a nice idea of how to use the new bandwidth. It's the same with computing power or hard drive space every year. That's simply technological evolution at its best.

I'm very curious about what's going on in the near future with data over 3G networks. I'm absolutely convinced that UMTS will soon become a great success for business user, but my personal guess is, it will take some significant time till our friends and neighbors are considering data over their cell phone as useful. So far, the operator marketing has completely failed in attracting more than a few early adopters.

My personal favorite is E-Mail and news via GPRS. But I'm using a combination of PDA and cell phone where these applications are great; the market potential, however, for such a combination is very limited. The new upcoming Windows-based Smartphones appear promising to me and seem to have a great potential to change the way we use cell phones. But that's my personal point of view; is it also shared by my neighbor? We certainly will find out soon.

Hence, the current answer to my question in the headline is definitely "no". But when we simply look around to see what's coming up, we will find out when the public is going to be ready for data over 3G networks. Just keep an eye on your friends and on the current movie program!

Cheers ~ Wolfgang


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Posted by Mark Albala on 15.03.04 - 12:37:48

I really think the major over-riding factors are three issues:

1 - THis one is being tackled rapidly, that being that the speed of the network is too slow.  When websites were not graphic laden, the speed was probably OK, but now that the pages have grown geometrically, the cost of using the services and the speed at which a page is rendered has become prohibitive in most of the world.

2 - Big deal, not solved, that being the screen is too small.  A PDA screen is a little small but livable, any smaller and the screen is no longer readable.  I think this is the achilles heal of smartphones, the screen is just too small (for someone who is no longer 20 years old and can afford one of these things) to use the services that they are differentiated by.

3 - Pen based input is important.  Having a touch screen is an important component, at least to me.  Especially on a web page, where there are literally hundreds of hotspots, or where the page is navigable in a random order on a smartphone, the pen gains alot of merit.

Being an i-Mate owner, I find the web acceptable on the device, and heavily use email on the device when on the road.  However, if it didn't have the pen, had a smaller screen, or if the service wasn't unlimited, I would probably curtail it's use.  And yes, I am more inclined to use the web on the phone at a hotspot location because my patience does not warrent rendering web pages over GPRS.

So much for my thoughts


Posted by cheekymonkey on 15.03.04 - 18:48:21

Another great article from Doc Wireless big_smile

Here in the UK the focus has been on video calling for 3 who were first to market with 3G. Only now are the big players entering the fray, like Orange, and trying to market the technology to business. 3's efforts have been such a multi billion dollar flop that their adverts now only promote their cheap 2G tariffs.

In my eyes the average consumer is not ready for 3G, either that or is just not ready to pay for costly customized content.


Posted by Arne Hess on 15.03.04 - 13:48:49

As you guys know, I'm currently working on a 3G project as well as I'm already using 3G and I have to agree but also have to disagree.

First let me talk about speed: the current 3G speed - even if far away from what was promised long time ago - is enough to surf and use the web as you are used to use it. Keep in mind (especially the Americans) that still not everybody here in Europe has DSL or Cable but many users have ISDN with 64 Kbit only. So getting a wireless access with 128 Kbit up to 384 Kbit is pretty fast for them! ;-)

I've used my Notebook during the last two weeks mostly with UMTS only and I'm really satisfied! I even accesses my home PC by Terminal Service client and it was more then fast enough to be useful! :-)

Regarding the services and demands which have to be created, it's right and it incorporates with the penetration of Notebooks as well. As long as most users don't have Notebooks, these users aren't the target group for real wireless Internet on a PC (Notebook) but smart phone or wireless PDA target groups only. Therefore the industry have to develop services beside the real Internet to use the full bandwidth and advantages of UMTS with mobile devices (such as smart and feature phones or PDAs). When I showed my parents (and hey, keep in mind my father is 64) video streaming on a phone last weekend my father already asked me if I also have football (soccer for the Americans) because this is something he would like to use!

While UMTS is a fine technology it's mostly useless without content and optimized service offers; so it's a combination of having access, having the right devices and having the services available. Carriers are already working behind the scenes to develop wireless services and they are doing it for a long time but as with all new technologies, it might takes time to see it penetrated into the mass market.

However, as with the Internet it's hard to identify what might become the killer app and I'm confident there is no killer app beside offering the access (high speed wireless access in this case) which provides every user the possibility to use what ever he want, where ever he want. :-)

Posted by JaToAc on 16.03.04 - 13:54:01

the problem is once more availability and more important pricing and services offered. in my eyes there is no need of 3G for the average mobile phone use. like already mentioned mobile phones are mostly used to make calls and sending sms (who's surprised by that). mms didn't take off yet and i don't see it being the thing in the near future (we had that point before). as always the providers and mobile phone producers didn't develop services/handsets in time for the start of the 3G network. and until serious, needed, desired and wanted services are available i don't see that new 3G take off with the average mobile phone user at all. still i wonder if i should switch to 3G as soon as it is available here in my village. i can live perfectly with gprs here....

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 16.03.04 - 19:27:36

Thanks to everybody for the suprisingly long comments. And 'cheekymonkey', the nickname you gave me made me smile, that's a good one!

As I was already saying it to Arne today, I often feel like being the only one on this planet that is using GPRS for mobile Internet access. By excluding my girl friend, none of my friends - even when I call amost everybody a friend to enlarge the group -  is using GPRS. Most of them think it's cool, when I demonstrate the xda, but they simply say "I don't need mobile Internet access, and it's to expensive anyway!"

So my question to all kind readers of this article: if you put it down to a number, what's the percentage out of all people you know that is using mobile Internet access over phone networks?

Cheers ~ W

Posted by cheekymonkey on 16.03.04 - 22:43:19

"what's the percentage out of all people you know that is using mobile Internet access over phone networks?"

Despite friends and colleagues having flashy mobiles, iPaqs and most types of PDAs going, I seem to be the only one using GPRS. Even every simple things like getting the football results seem to impress.

As people have said, I just don't think the average consumer has a real need or desire to use GRPS. I think the real breakthrough in the UK would be flatrate pricing for all. If this were to happen people would flock to it I reckon, safe in the knowledge that the next bill won't break the bank (if not cheap, then at least what they expect month by month).

Posted by David Clubb on 16.03.04 - 23:02:37

To give you a percentage of people I know that use phone networks as a way of mobile Internet access, I would have to say zero percent. I know quite a few people, including rather "techie" ones, but none of them use phone networks to access the Internet. On the other hand, I use it every now and then. For example, this entire past week I was in Florida for spring break (I'm a college student) and my only access to the Internet to check news and e-mail was through GPRS (T-Mobile USA) using my SE T610 connected to my laptop with Bluetooth. While it was slow, it sure beats being "unconnected." It also was also a nice way to chat with friends on the 10 hour car ride. smile

One more thing I would like to add though is that one of the reasons that I'm so willing to use GPRS with my laptop is because of the price. With all T-Mobile USA phone plans there is free GPRS included, so I'm not paying anything extra for this flatrate directly. I think that if I had to pay per KB (like I have to do when I'm back home in Germany during the summer), I wouldn't use it except on a few rare occasions when I might want to check my e-mail when I'm traveling.

Also, I agree with you Arne that the bandwidth provided by UMTS/3G is quite good enough. While I have a ridiculous LAN connection here at my college dorm room (23.5 megabits per second according to, when I'm back in Germany for the summer, I have to be happy with simple 64kbps ISDN since I live in a small town and most likely will never see DSL being available. So if someone like T-Mobile, Vodafone, E-Plus, or O2 would provide acceptable UMTS coverage in my town and provide a flatrate, I would upgrade to it instantly. Hell, if I could just get a GPRS flatrate at my house in Germany like I do here in the United State, I would use it for IM/e-mail instead of the ISDN for which I'm being billed by the minute.

That's my two cents...take it as you want. smile


Posted by jayson on 17.03.04 - 06:33:32

I guess people are ready to accept these new technologies but the problem is that the costs of these services are note really justified.  I remember several articles in PPCW regarding our complaints about GPRS and WiFi pricing, making it impractical for most users.  Operators will just have to make a consumer-friendly pricing scheme to make these services take off.  But not in the start as I see them (operators) having the mentality of making up for their expenses in developing these technologies.  This means they won't lower the price of these new services pretty soon.


There are movies utilizing these technologies (GPRS) on mobile deivces.  Best example is Die Another Day (James Bond) where James Bond's desguise was foiled by the use of the Sony Ericsson P800.  While on a mission, the North Korean villain took a picture of Bond and sent it to a mole in MI6.  The mole in MI6 confirmed it was Bond by sending back some pictues and data.  None of these would be possible without GPRS... and its a real-world technology, not just a James Bond movie gimmick. :-)

Posted by APA on 17.03.04 - 08:39:36

I will join the ZERO % group. I had used GPRS when I got my QTEK 2020, however only for the first few days, then permanently disabled it. Funny coincidence I got yesterday my mobile bill for last month. I scaled back from three sim cards to two, one of these two I did downgrade the subscription model. Absolutely cutting the cost until they offer decent prices. On a separate page they had this:

"Three-month price reduction for GPRS rates (WAP)"

Now you can experience sunrise live for less! From today, sunrise has reduced the cost of your mobile data transmissions via GPRS from CHF 20.48 per megabyte to CHF 7.50 per megabyte.

I personally always thought it was already 7.50, however 20 or 7.50 I feel the person in charge of the price structure is using drugs. Must be living in a perfect flower world.

Since I saw the rates from 3 in HongKong I cut all my expenses to a minimum and no big surprise I can live with it perfectly. I'm more than willing to join a UMTS carrier IF the rates are properly set, not because of data, but because finally I could use it roaming in Japan and Korea. Until now that was not possible and that sucks more than not having a permanent data connection. Data I can get on WiFi Spots or good hotels anyway.

Posted by JaToAc on 17.03.04 - 12:44:28

to make it short: 1% of the people i know. and even some techies don't use gprs. and some don't know that they are using gprs when sending mms. verkehrte welt...

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 18.03.04 - 17:10:33

Well, with regards to all your comments and my experiences, the good news for all operators is: there's lot's of opportunity for further development smile What a business challenge!

Cheers ~ Wolfgang

Posted by JaToAc on 18.03.04 - 19:43:34

that's a good one... how long do we have gprs? and how many people are really using it? and now we have 3G/UMTS... perhaps even less people using this........

Posted by Wolfgang Irber on 18.03.04 - 21:32:29

I'm nonetheless full of hope, even though some of my 'thoughts' may render a more pessimistic picture; but I'm just reflecting the current state of the art as I experience it.

With data over 3G networks, it's going to take some time, no doubt, but I'm fully convinced that in a few years from now we cannot imagine anymore how it was without.

Besides all marketing efforts, it also depends on us, the geeks, how fast new technologies penetrate the market.

If our friends can see the benefit we enjoy with mobile data, they may watch us for some time, but eventually may give it a try.

Some of my colleagues watched me quite suspiciously for almost two years, but now they start to think...

So I'm still full of hope smile

Cheers ~ W

Posted by Oliver on 20.03.04 - 00:06:51

None of my friends use GPRS for internet access or data transfer. None of my colleagues uses GPRS for these purposes either. I know two people who use GPRS occasionally, when sending MMS, but that's implicit use and they are not aware of it.

When I look at the pricing structure for GPRS in Germany and most of Europe I suppose the telcos don't want us to use GPRS at all.

Posted by APA on 20.03.04 - 11:06:59

Wolfgang, I still think it's all controlled over price, if the big honchos at the mobile companies don't start to think. GPRS will be never used close to its potential.

I got some figures from HKG, Hutchison Whampoa is now up from 6000 to 10'000 new subscribers per day for 3. Look at their price schema and you will see easily why.

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