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3G phones – rarer than hen's teeth

But Simon R. got his mitts on this NEC prototype

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Preview I wasn't supposed to review this phone. It's the most valuable one I have held; worth more than the solid platinum handset NEC made as a one-off back in 1998.

The phone in question is also an NEC model, one of the prototype third-generation models being used in the Isle of Man to test the network that is under development there.

Manx Telecom, a subsidiary of BT, is building an experimental network on the island. The project, costing many tens of millions of pounds, is the most advanced test of mobile phones in the world. It has 22 cell sites, with a plan to expand to 28, and advanced radio planning and billing software.

The network went live in December with just 20 phones. These handsets are so rare that the managing director of Manx Telecom, Chris Hall, said he would buy phones from anyone prepared to sell them to him. They let me play with one for half an hour—then made sure they got it back.

The phone has no official name, but we’ll call it the IMT 2000. It’s a clamshell design with a button on the lid and a blue light in the centre of the button, and looks rather cheap and plasticky.

It’s slim and light at 103x52x24mm and 103g. At first I was impressed by this, as I know 3G functions need a lot of power and I’d been expecting a big chunky battery. Sadly, it turned out that I was right. The phone has a standby time of just 35 hours, and a meagre talktime of 2.5 hours, a figure which I suspect covers voice alone, not battery-draining video or high speed data.

Like GSM phones, 3G phones use a SIM card. The one in the test phone is capable of storing 700 names and numbers. The call quality was excellent, although oddly 'dead'. It wasn't abruptly clipped like a GSM phone, but neither was it as sonorous as a land line.
The IMT 2000 has a big bright 4096 colour screen, with a resolution of 132x162 pixels. There is a little smearing when it scrolls, but it's fine for watching video clips or playing games.

The phones being used by Manx Telecom are single mode, meaning that they can only use the 3G network. This doesn't fit with the usual predictions about the way we’ll use 3G. As a rule the assumption is that 3G will only be available in towns and cities, and we’ll continue to use ordinary GSM in the less populated places. It costs a lot to roll out a new network and the operators will probably be reluctant to put in much effort covering areas that offer little revenue in return.

So we'll all need phones that can do both GSM and 3G. Unfortunately, this calls for a lot of additional electronics. What's more, an antenna which is efficient at one frequency isn’t nearly as good at another. There are also network complications involved in handing off between technologies.

All these factors mean that dual-mode 3G phones will be bigger and more expensive than the models we’re currently used to. NEC hasn't attempted to jump through this particular hoop with the prototype in use on Manx Telecom.

The phones got noticeably warmer than an ordinary mobile even using a 64Kbps connection, which is a lot less than the theoretical 384K maximum.

All colour phones look good and the NEC 3G makes the most of this with applications that have been developed for this. It's based on WAP 1.2 but adds graphics and colour. A fighting game against another person worked excellently. This is good news, as mobile gaming is one of the very few 3G applications promising real revenue.

The screen savers of dogs chasing birds and a solar system are fantastic. There is a lot of potential for animated cartoons on 3G devices. One neat feature is that you can have a play list of ring tones, with the phone stepping through them.

The ring tones are polyphonic and sound great. As far as I could tell, the phone didn't cater for WAV files or have a ring tone recorder.

There is a lot missing from the IMC 2000 that you'd expect to see on a current GSM phone. It does have a scheduler, and a password protected 'secret' mode, but it misses out on some of the things we’ve come to expect, such as personal ring tones, predictive text and built in games. Messaging is only by email—there is no SMS. Nor does it have a web browser; the only way to download video clips is via WAP or through the USB link from a PC. This is disappointing; with a phone that has high-speed always-on there should be a lot more in the way of communications options such as a web browser and the ability to download Java applications. It's also a better way to communicate with computers; it has USB, but no Bluetooth or infra red.

It can't be stressed too often that this was a very early prototype and lots will change. But it’s also important to make the point that the first 3G phones we see will actually be a lot more primitive in many ways than the models we're used to. The basic technological challenge is so great that it won't leave much room for subtle refinements.

Ease of use

Below the screen is the keypad. It has a Star-Trek four way cursor cluster with a select button in the middle. Two keys above the cluster provide confirm and function buttons. (If the screen bore legends relating to these, in the usual manner of softkeys, they’d be a lot more useful). One says 'f' for function and the other has an envelope with a tick on it, but while I was using the phone, the function button just took you to the menu. There's probably some way to go in sorting out the roles and labelling of the various buttons.

The interface is rather perverse. Only one menu option at a time is displayed in the middle of the screen, and below it a text box showing which options you get if you choose up or down. That’s three lines of text, in a confusing order, on a screen that has room for 20. However, this was a very early taster and it would be churlish to criticise at this point. Handset issues aside, it was fascinating to see 3G in action.

One of the impressive demonstrations Manx Telecom laid on was Isle of Man on the Move. We drove around the island in a Citroen people-mover that was equipped with a PC, Global Positioning System and a 3G phone.
The screen of the PC showed where we were and the software used the phone to download relevant web pages. You could drive past the very smart hotel and book in from the sea front. To everyone who was due to fly out that evening the times and delays of the flights home were particularly important. It worked very well, proving that hand-off between the cells on the island didn’t cause a problem.

The big problem with 3G remains how to pay for it. All the mobile phone networks see mobile data as being the answer but no-one has a convincing answer as to what people are going to use the data for. To this end 02 (nee BT Cellnet) which owns Manx Telecom has a developer arm called Expidas. This helps people who want to produce mobile data applications (on-line guides on an iPaq for washing machine repairmen, games and horoscopes) and Expidas is working with Manx in the hope of finding the 'killer application'.

There is a lot of speculation not only on what will make 3G a success, but if it can be made a success. It’s taken GPRS a year to stagger from first launch to being available in the shops and GPRS is a very simple network upgrade. 3G is much, much harder.

Even the bullish Managing Director of Manx telecom thinks it will take over five years for the number of 3G users to overtake the number of GSM users on his island, which is the most advanced place in the world. It has perfect coverage, no government licence fee and all the manufacturers co-operating with their finest engineers to make it work.

There are heaps of problems, not least making all the tens of thousands of base stations needed for each of the hundreds of networks around the world which have ordered them. Then there is the planning permission needed to erect them and that's all before you start worrying about getting it working and then selling the services. The predictions that we'll see mass sales of 3G phones for Christmas after next seem very optimistic.

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