3G likely to be scarce outside urban areas

A map drawn up by O2 shows that while the company's 3G service may reach 80 percent of the population by 2007, its network will leave large geographical areas with no coverage at all

Many parts of the UK look likely to remain devoid of 3G mobile coverage until at least 2008, as operators fulfil their statutory obligation to reach 80% of the population by focusing on crowded metropolitan locations and ignoring more remote areas.

Projected 3G coverage produced by mobile operator O2 suggest that all Britain's major towns and cities will soon be covered by its third-generation mobile network However, it appears that many other areas, including much of Scotland, Wales, the south west of England and the rural north of England, will continue to miss out. It's likely that UK 3G networks will pursue the same sort of strategy to reach their statutory targets.

O2's 3G data service will go on sale from 1 October, giving a high-speed data link for laptop users. Its 3G network only extends to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds. This 'Phase One', O2 says, is enough to reach some 30 percent of the UK population.

'Phase Two', which O2 hopes to have completed by June 2005, will see its 3G coverage spread out of London into the surrounding counties. Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol and Belfast are among the urban areas that will also come onboard, taking coverage to around 50 percent by population.

Further phases of network rollout will be demand-led but, like every 3G licence-holder, O2 must provide 80 percent UK population coverage by the end of 2007.

Projections of possible future rollout that O2 showed to journalists this week indicate that this 80 percent target would still restrict 3G coverage to urban areas.

Senior O2 executives said on Monday that it was basing its 3G coverage on areas where GPRS usage is at its highest, and pointed out that GPRS is available pretty much everywhere in the UK. When 3G isn't available, the O2 data card will drop to GPRS.

"This is a dual-mode product. It's not like GPRS isn't there," said Mike Short, O2's vice-president of technology, referring to the large swathes of the UK where O2 isn't likely to offer 3G unless coverage moves a lot closer to 100 percent.

At 30 percent, O2's 3G coverage lags behind that of its rivals. Short denied that O2 had been forced to rush out its 3G data service because Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile had already done so, and pointed out that the O2 service includes the opportunity to link to around 6,000 Wi-Fi hot spots.

3G operators are able to set up roaming deals on each others networks as a way of giving their users greater network coverage without the expense of building more base stations.

But if these mobile broadband services are largely restricted to urban areas, then they may not be attractive to some companies. IT managers could have to study coverage maps carefully to see which, if any, mobile networks provide the coverage their roving workers will need.

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