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3G sets Cannes smoking again

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3GSM If the thick fug of cigar smoke in the lobby of the Majestic Barrière is anything to go by, the good times are coming back to the mobile phone industry as it makes its final visit to Cannes.

3G is finally taking off, GSM Association CEO Rob Conway told those 3GSM World Congress attendees who got up early enough to hear his keynote today.

The number of 3G handsets (which for some reason he was calling 3GSM handsets) is up to 75, with another 40 to come by the end of the show.

It still wasn’t enough for T-Mobile CEO Rene Obermann, sharing his thoughts with the crowd in a ‘fireside chat’. He listed the lack of compelling handsets as one of the issues which ran through his mind shortly before his head hit the pillow each night.

“We need to get the right range of devices to get a true mobile internet experience and get mass market penetration,” he said.

NTT DoCoMo CEO Masao Nakamura, fireside chatting through an interpreter, shed some light on the Japanese giant’s plan for HSDPA, the high-speed download enhancement to 3G which will be one of the conference’s most talked-about technologies.

HSDPA will appear on the market in 2006, he said. “There are two elements,” his translator said. “One is the fact that HSDPA is important to reduce network cost. And because of its higher speed it will allow us to offer richer content.”

“We can introduce HSDPA with minimal incremental investment,” he added.

DoCoMo is keen to continue to promote interoperability between its own equipment and international standard kit. The idea is that this will increase volumes, and reduce prices for DoCoMo’s own equipment and handset purchases – so expect more efforts to push iMode, and perhaps even Linux enabled handsets in Europe.

Whether DoCoMo can transplant a thriving content business which is worth 1 trillion yen (£5bn) a year remains to be seen.

Orange’s CEO Sanjiv Ahuja looked uncomfortable when probed about Orange’s desire to expand geographically. “We are looking… I’m not ready to tell you.”

“We have to look at organic and inorganic growth. When we moved to Africa and Eastern Europe it has been very successful. So we are constantly on the lookout.”

A key step in the march towards the inevitable second billion GSM/3G subscribers is a cheap handset. Or rather, a “not a cheap handset, but high quality handset at low cost,” an important difference, Conway told the crowd.

This would open another 181m to 321m subscribers to the joys of mobile telephones.

Motorola has been chosen by the GSM association as the ones to manufacture a handset that will sell for $30 - the price of a modest Havana. The handset is $40 at the moment, but the intention is to shave off another $10.

Another tender for a second high-quality-at-low-cost handset is on the cards.

The GSM association has been trialling systems to make the process of global roaming easier. Rather than concluding deals with a network in each country, operators just need to sign up with a hub exchange.

This is being launched for MMS, and a similar system for SIP-based IP traffic has been trialled with a posse of European operators, including TeliaSonera, KPN, Orange, SFR, Telenor and Vodafone.

To “accommodate its growth path”, said Conway, 3GSM is moving to Barcelona for 2006, where conventioneers can look forward to a better choice of restaurants, functioning public transport and much cheaper cigars.

The taxi drivers of Cannes will certainly miss it. ®

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