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UK mobile phone network O2's consumer 3G service officially went live today, as the company began offering third-generation handsets to punters anywhere in the country, whether they live in a 3G coverage area or not.

Three handsets went on sale today, from O2's website and retail chain: two clamshells and a candybar, Nokia's 6630, priced at £100. The others are O2's own-brand X4 (free) and Samsung's Z107 (£50). O2 wants to add Motorola's clamshell V975 to the list, but it's not available just yet.

The phones that you can buy today are all available on contract - O2 chiefs promised pre-pay versions "in a few weeks", when they spoke to reporters last week. The prices listed above are those that apply to the more expensive tarriffs - cheaper tariffs carry higher handset costs.

The X4 sports a 262,000-colour screen, and an 1.3m pixel camera with an 8x digital zoom and flash. The handset has 10MB of memory, expandable by memory card - a 64MB card is bundled. Like O2's other 3G handsets, the X4 is GSM/GPRS compatible - tri-band in this case - to allow calls to be made when the user isn't in a 3G zone.

Indeed, the network expects plenty of customers to acquire 3G handsets now, tempting then with not only the ability to make standard calls, but an upgraded O2 Active experience - which apparently involves adapting the service to the individual's content preferences - and a "transparent" tariff: essentially, you pay the same for 3G services as you do for GSM/GPRS.

That, however, is only for a limited "promotional period" which runs through to the end of April 2005. O2 did not say what it will charge when that period ends. 3G downloads will presumably be billed at standard per-byte GPRS rates, even though they're of shorter duration, but how per-minute video calls will be billed remains to be seen.

O2 said its 3G network is now available in over 20 major cities in towns throughout the UK, and hopes to offer coverage to 50 per cent of the UK population by June 2005. ®

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