Mobile bosses cautious over 3G

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Third generation telephone networks have taken a backseat in speeches by the bosses of two of the UK biggest mobile operators.

The chief executives of both O2 and Orange delivered keynote addresses at the annual 3GSM conference in Cannes last week but neither seemed to have 3G uppermost on their minds.

Peter Erskine, head of O2 used the Cannes platform to complain about recent demands from UK telecoms watchdog Oftel that mobile operators slash the costs of making calls to other networks.

Coupled with European regulatory attempts to reduce the costs of making foreign calls, Mr Erskine said it added up to too much interference in the industry

Describing it as “small picture thinking” Mr Erskine accused the regulators of stifling creativity and competition.

“It is a constant battle between regulators and operators and places us in uncertainty,” he said.

It was time, he said, to let mobile firms stand on their own two feet.

“There has been talk of the mobile industry being in its infancy but such comparisons have outlived their usefulness,” he said.

Regulation, he said should be “colossally light-touch” and looked to new super regulator to adopt a hand-off approach to the mobile industry.

Mr Erskine reaffirmed O2’s long-term commitment to 3G, describing the technology as “too extraordinary, too life-enhancing” not to happen,

But he also hinted that the industry was about to go through a period of consolidation with mergers and partnerships.

O2 could favour network-sharing rather than rolling out its own dedicated 3G network, he said.

He said that 3G was no longer a field of dreams adhering to the philosophy that if you built it, users will come.

“Now the attitudes are more pragmatic and led by market demand,” he said.

The new focus on customer demand and need was central to the speech made to the Congress by Orange’s outgoing boss Jean Francois Pontal.

He compared the challenges facing the mobile industry as those faced by the music industry, a need to keep a constant eye on what ordinary people were doing.

“The next big thing is here already, in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms,” he said.

Despite the best-laid plans of operators to move users to multimedia services, the real decisions will be made at grass-roots level he said.

“We might suggest ways customers might like to use services but at the end of the day they will be defined and deployed by the street,” he said.

Old-fashioned voice was likely to remain the core business for mobile operators for the next decade he said.

Mr Pontal admitted that Orange was not at the bleeding edge of 3G rollouts.

“Clearly we won’t be first with 3G but it is not about the technology, more what the technology can do for people,” he said.

He urged incoming boss Solomon Trujillo to keep his mind fixed on the voice business as the company moved forward.

Mobile phone firms look to future

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Picture messaging is likely to be one of the big issues when mobile operators meet in Cannes in the south of France for the annual 3GSM World Congress.

Among the cocktail parties aboard the yachts lining Cannes harbour will be some serious talk about the way the industry is going.

The next 12 months look rosy for mobile firms, as a new wave of camera phones reignite a stagnant market.

Multimedia messaging services (MMS) will be one of the buzzwords on the lips of party-goers and unlike previous conferences it is now a concrete reality rather than just an idea.

Vodafone, mmO2 and Orange have all launched multimedia phones and services across Europe.

According to Trevor Brignall, business development director at consulting firm Gap Gemini, the mobile firms are surpassing even their own expectations.

“Take-up is way above internal projections. Even if the number of subscribers is slowing, the really good news is that revenue per users has increased,” he said.

Jupiter Research estimates that by 2007 40% of European mobile phones will be MMS-enabled.

Jupiter analyst Olivier Beauvillain is more cautious about how quickly operators will make money from MMS services.

“It is too expensive to grow that quickly and I don’t expect a transition from conventional phones to the new handsets in a year,” he said.

Mr Brignall believes Cannes 2003 will be more realistic in tone compared to previous conferences – less about the ideas of the future as about looking at what is working in the here and now.

There will be much more customer focus, he believes, looking at how customers use the new handsets and what they want in terms of future services.

And there will be plenty of case studies presenting lessons to be learned and the success stories of operators which have already made the transition to data.

Leading the pack will be NTT DoCoMo, the operator that experienced such phenomenal success in Japan and which has now launched services in Germany, France and Holland.

IDC analyst Paolo Pescatore believes one of the lessons to be learnt from DoCoMo is that services do not necessarily travel.

“The culture is very different in Europe where everyone has PCs and people are not used to data-enabled phones,” he said.

While much of the talk at Cannes will be how to make existing data services appeal to customers the real buzz will still be around third generation mobile phones.

3G networks and services are tantalisingly close with Hutchison planning roll outs in the UK and Italy next month and other operators promising services by the end of the year.

“3G is on everybody’s mind,” said Mr Pescatore.

M-commerce, another buzzword from conferences gone by, will again be on everyone’s lips as operators seek to make paying for content on phones as easy as possible.

While the UK, Germany and Italy are taking the lead on mobile services they will also be looking to Scandinavian innovations such as allowing people to order taxis and pay for parking via their mobiles.

Location-based services, finding the nearest restaurant or cinema, will be back on the agenda as operators scrabble for services that will really appear useful to customers.

Photo messaging tries to rival txt

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Sending a drunken picture of yourself to your friends may be the most popular use of picture messaging at the moment, but mobile firms are hoping to change that.

The phones that enable picture messaging are selling well – 130,000 Vodafone users and 100,000 for O2 – and are beginning to come down in price.

As picture messaging becomes increasingly popular, the mobile operators are hoping it will become as invaluable a communication method as e-mail and texting.

To this end the companies are trying to come up with a visual language for camera phones.

Vodafone has come up with The Little Book of Picture Messaging, which is full of ideas for how everyday objects can become significant messages.

So a door knob indicates an idiot, the back of a bus an ugly date, a thumb says “I can’t come out tonight” and ice cubes are shorthand for cool.

Vodafone is at pains to point out that these are just suggestions.

“We want to get people thinking about how they can use picture messaging but we can’t thrust it on the community,” said a spokeswoman for the firm.

O2 has taken things a stage farther, employing a panel of academics, language experts and experts in non-verbal communication.

They found that everyday language consists of two categories – social conversations for fun and communication intended to convey meaning.

In the world of text messaging, these two have been blurred.

“Texting is about saying factual things in a fun way,” explained an O2 spokesman.

O2 is hoping that the same will be true of picture messaging.

“We believe it is a natural evolution from text messaging although people will probably be using it ways and coming up with a language we wouldn’t have predicted,” he said.

Mobile operators were late to text messaging, only providing the interconnect agreements that allowed people to chat across networks several years after the phenomenon took off.

Text messaging came from a grassroots base of customers and operators are very aware that it flourished because of this.

Any attempt to market a new phenomenon could fall flat on its face.

“Text messaging was owned by the people and evolved from the bottom up rather than corporations dictating how it was used,” said the O2 spokesman.

This time around mobile firms are determined to lead from the front, already offering interconnect agreements and charging a premium for such services.

Initially the service was offered free but O2 has just ended its honeymoon period and started to charge 40p per message.

The price tag alone might prevent it becoming as popular as text messaging, said BT Futurologist Ian Pearson. And people might also prefer to talk.

“Text is conversational but pictures are not,” he said.

The mobile operators disagree, arguing that pictures can be very emotive, especially when combined with sound clips and text.

“A girlfriend sent her boyfriend a picture of her feet in the snow with the text ‘wish you were here’ which conveyed a huge amount of emotion,” said the O2 spokesman.

“Pictures can say more than words,” he added.

New York bans mobiles in theatres

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After banning smoking in bars and restaurants, New York is tackling what many see as another major public annoyance.
 
From April, requests to switch off your mobile phone before a play or concert begins will be backed up with the threat of a $50 fine. Anyone making a call, talking on their mobile, or even being rung during the performance will be breaking the law.
 
New York is believed to be the first major US city to bring in such legislation. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed the move, saying such a law would be impossible to enforce. He had tried to veto the law, but he was overruled by a 38-5 vote in the New York City Council.
 
“It’s a real quality of life issue,” said Councilman Phil Reed, the main sponsor of the new law. “

And because it would only apply during the performance, it’s not a lot to ask of people to do.”

 
The new law applies to concerts, cinemas, theatres, as well as museums and libraries. The use of audible pagers and bleepers is also banned. People will still be allowed to make calls from their mobiles during the interval and in theatre lobbies.
 
Mayor Bloomberg had said such a law was unnecessary. “We do not hesitate to shush,” he said, arguing for “less formal means” to ensure that audiences remain quiet during performances. The mobile phone industry also opposed the law.
 
“The city cannot legislate courtesy and common sense,” said Thomas Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. He noted that mobile phones were only one potential source of boorish behaviour in the theatre.
 
“Talking during performances, singing aloud – except where sanctioned – unwrapping candy and cough drops” were equally likely to cause annoyance, he said. But inveterate mobile phone users can still chatter during the action if they go to a stadium. The new ban does not cover sporting events.
 

Picking the right mobile phone

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The prices that UK mobile phone firms charge are highly contentious. Many consumers complain that it is too difficult to compare offers and that many charges are misleading. So how do you avoid being caught out?

About 40 million people in the UK now have a mobile phone, but many of those are likely to be paying over the odds.

This is because the process of buying a mobile phone is so confusing.

There are simply so many different handsets, networks, deals and call costs to consider that buying the right phone for your usage and budget can be very difficult.

There is also a lack of independent advice on offer to consumers.

One of the main ways to get caught out is to focus on cheap headline rates.

Many deals offer a rate of say 2p for an off-peak charge to the same mobile network or call to a landline.

However, it is highly unlikely that all your friends, family and business associates will be on the same network.

A large proportion of your calls will be to other mobile networks, which are usually much more expensive.

For example, Vodafone’s Leisure 200 deal offers a 2p evening and weekend rate for calls to landlines, but it will cost you 30p off-peak and 50p peak to call another mobile network.

You can either choose a monthly deal, which has a line rental charge and often inclusive call minutes; a yearly package or a pre-paid mobile, where you simply pay for the calls and no line rental each month.

The call cost on a pre-pay phone is usually more expensive than the cost you would incur with a monthly deal.

Monthly deals also have the advantage of including free call minutes usually during the weekend and for evening use.

However, subscribing to a monthly deal may not be economical.

If you are a light user you may be better off on pre-pay, because you may not even spend enough each month to justify the line rental charges which are typically between £15 and £30.

If you want to use your mobile phone abroad, and want to subscribe to a pre-pay phone you should ask whether you will be able to use the phone while you are abroad.

If you want to use your mobile abroad you may need to get permission from your network operator before travelling.

This involves calling customer services and asking for your phone to be enabled for international use. This function can be switched on remotely.

But you should also check to see that the specification of your phone is compatible with networks abroad. You will need a so-called “tri-band” phone if you want to make mobile calls in the US or Canada.

The GSM Association’s website has a full list.

Once you arrive in another country, your phone will lock onto the network with the strongest signal.

While some will let you choose which one you can use, you will have to reset it each time you switch on the phone.

The cost of “roaming” which is the mobile industry’s term for using your mobile outside your home country is currently under investigation by the European Union.

The reason why using your mobile phone abroad is so expensive is because you are charged twice: both for the cost of calls you make and for those you receive, including voicemail messages.

Roaming charges vary widely among countries and networks within those states.

To avoid charges, some phones let you divert calls to voicemail so that you pay only to retrieve the messages.

Frequent travellers to one destination often purchase a mobile phone for the country they are travelling to or purchase another Sim card which they swap when they arrive overseas.

But this is not always possible: some networks block this money-saving initiative.

Consumer groups are fighting for measures to reduce the locking of handsets to Sim cards, which will make it easier for people to switch networks.

 

Nokia engages with mobile gaming

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Nokia has unveiled details of its N-Gage handheld game phone gadget.

The move puts it in direct competition with Asian giant Nintendo whose Gameboy dominates the market for handheld games.

Sega is signed up to provide titles for Nokia’s N-Gage machine.

The N-Gage launch is part of a wider strategy by all handset makers to get consumers doing more with their phones.

Nokia first announced its plans for the N-Gage in November last year.

At a press conference on Wednesday, the company said it will be available during the fourth quarter of 2003 around the world, but a price has not been set.

Although many of the latest phones have better games on board thanks to colour screens and fast processors, the N-Gage will be for more dedicated fans.

Games for the N-Gage will be on memory cards that slot into the gadget.

Sega is planning to release titles featuring its mascot Sonic the Hedgehog on the N-Gage.

In launching the N-Gage Nokia is taking on Nintendo which has sold more than 24 million Gameboy Advance units worldwide since its launch in March 2001.

To compete with Nintendo’s Gameboy that sells for 130euro (£85), Nokia will probably have to be prepared to make a loss on every N-Gage sold.

According to figures from Telecom One the Nokia 7210 is currently the most popular games phone and it sells for more than twice the price of the Gameboy on some UK networks.

A new dedicated device is likely to be even more expensive.

Earlier this year Nintendo launched the latest version of the Gameboy Advance, the SP, which sheaths the gadget in a sleek steel shell.

Although more sophisticated games are appearing on handsets, it remains to be seen whether people will be willing to buy a more dedicated games playing machine.

Nokia is hoping Bluetooth short-range radio technology will prove a draw as it will let N-Gage owners take each other on.

Mobile phone firms and handset makers are keen to get people doing more with their phones and making greater use of data services such as games, sound and images.

Games for phones are slowly catching on thanks to the emergence of phones like the Nokia 7210 and 7650, the Sharp GX10 and services such as Vodafone Live which let people download titles.

Telecom One reports that the number of phone games downloaded from its portal leapt by 250% in January when compared to the same period in December.

Newer phones can run download and run Java games and sites such as Midlet.org are springing up as clearing houses for these titles.

BBC Micro fans can even relive the glory of classic title Repton on their Nokia 7650 phone thanks to game maker Masabi.