Japan's mobile providers rushing towards 3G

To meet the booming demand here for data services over mobile devices, Japanese telecommunications carriers are scrambling to bring out next-generation mobile broadcasting technology by early 2001, according to the nation's largest mobile providers.

Record numbers of Japanese are already using their cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to send e-mail, check the weather forecast and reserve tickets. However, executives from NTT Mobile Communications Network (NTT DoCoMo), Japan Telecom, Kokusai Denshin Denwa (KDD), DDI Corp, and IDO Corp say that today's sluggish data transmission rates are not fast enough for the services customers want. The officials were speaking at the third annual Japan 3G (third-generation) Mobile Systems conference held here this week.

NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular service provider with just under 60 per cent of the total market, said that its i-mode cellular data service has been growing much faster than the company expected. Launched on February 22, i-mode had racked up 530,000 customers by July and tipped the scales at more than 1.2 million users by the end of August, according to Takanori Utano, vice president of NTT DoCoMo's Radio Network Development Department.

I-mode cell phones give users access to some online services, such as banking and ticket purchases, enable then to send and receive e-mail, and access a limited number of simplified Web sites. Utano forecasts the population of the i-mode community will reach four million by the end of the year.

Japan Telecom reports a similar demand for data services. The Japanese carrier signed a deal last week with telecom giants British Telecommunications PLC and AT&T Corp to offer wireless and other services in the Japan market Takeshi Hashino, Japan Telecom executive advisor to the board, said that around 40 per cent of all traffic on his company's mobile broadcast systems was data-related last year, and the percentage is rising.

"Data services on mobile phones are growing rapidly in Japan. For example, entertainment services, like astrology information, are very popular with young kids in Japan," said Toshiaki Iba, senior analyst at Tokyo Mitsubishi Securities.

Though the fastest mobile phones in Japan today can download data at 64K bits per second (bps) -- a sufficient rate for using e-mail -- trying to send pictures or surfing the Internet at that speed is still a time-consuming drag, officials said.

Therefore companies here are rushing to develop third-generation (3G) broadcasting technology which will allow them to offer a host of new services over 3G devices including video phone features, online movies, and more sophisticated security features for electronic banking and commerce, officials said.

3G will make downloading data onto a mobile phone or handheld device speedier than onto many of today's modem-connected PCs, the officials said. At top speed, 3G systems will hit 2M bps if the user is motionless while using the phone. The data transfer rate will dip down to 384K pbs if the user is walking and bottom out at 144K bps in planes, trains or automobiles, officials added.

Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which regulates developments in cellular technologies, set out a timeframe for the development and rollout of 3G devices in July of last year. Under the plan, 3G devices using W-CDMA (wideband code division multiple access) technology should reach consumers by the first part of 2001.

NTT DoCoMo is the only provider which looks set to hit that mark, shipping its first 3G products in April 2001. Japan Telecom should be next, launching products in October 2001 at the latest, according to Chris North, senior vice president of BT Japan, who is working with Japan Telecom.

While 44 million Japanese use mobile devices now, that number is expected to skyrocket after 3G products appear on the market. Japan Telecom's Hashino thinks that the demand for mobile devices will immediately increase by 20 per cent in Japan with the launch of 3G.

Tokyo-Mitsubishi's Iba puts that number even higher, saying that Internet surfing, for example, will become a major role for mobile devices.

While NTT DoCoMo and Japan Telecom are proceeding down the path to W-CDMA-based 3G devices as outlined by the MPT, other carriers DDI and IDO are banking on a future version of Qualcomm Inc.'s cdmaOne technology for the time being.

Eiichi Matsumoto, managing director of IDO, thinks that his company will be able to offer data transmission on cell phones at rates of up to 144K bps within a few years, eventually moving the technology toward a 384K bps plateau. Furthermore, IDO will roll out a 64K-bps cdmaOne phone in December, he added.

IDO and DDI, which cooperate in their telecom business in Japan, are also conducting the world's first field trials of cdma2000, the 3G version of cdmaOne developed by Qualcomm and a different technology than W-CDMA. These tests are being carried out with Fujitsu Ltd, Oki Corp and Panasonic Corp and will be completed in March of next year, according to the carriers