Mobile network operators from around the world have endorsed a plan to develop a low-cost 3G handset, in the hope of extending the technology's reach.
The GSM Association (GSMA) announced on Monday that it was inviting handset manufacturers to "submit proposals for a 3G mobile phone that can support advanced services, such as high-speed Internet browsing, mobile TV and instant messaging, while costing significantly less than a low-end 3G handset today".
The winning design, which will be dubbed the "3G for All" phone, will be announced at the 3GSM World Congress in February next year, and will later become available to all GSMA operator members. The 12 operators backing the scheme — including Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, Hutchison (3 in the UK) and Telefonica (O2 in the UK) — have around 620 million subscribers between them, and will judge the entries themselves.
Craig Ehrlich, GSMA chairman and Hutchison board member, said operators wanted 3G handsets to become "the default choice for people buying a new phone".
"The size and geographic breadth of the companies steering this campaign demonstrates the importance the global operator community attaches to making 3G a mass-market phenomenon," Ehrlich said on Monday.
The cost associated with 3G was highlighted just last week as a prohibitive factor for consumers, with a global study by market research firm TNS showing that the number of people looking to buy a third-generation handset was actually falling — primarily because data pricing made 3G services expensive to use.
But David Pringle, spokesman for the GSMA, told ZDNet UK on Monday that "the cost of 3G services varies dramatically around the world".
"It is up to the individual operators as to how they price them. They're obviously going to price them at a point where they think they're going to be used. The reason we have focused on the handset is, when the consumer walks into the store, we want 3G handsets to be of comparable price with 2G handsets," he added.
Some UK operators have recently begun releasing their own lower-cost 3G handsets. O2 released its own-branded 3G-enabled Ice phone in September, and Vodafone will follow suit with its Vodafone 710 clamshell later in October. Both phones are aimed at the pay-as-you-go market, but the GSMA claims a collaborative effort will get even better results.
"We do think we can get further than individual operators by pulling together collective economies of scale," Pringle insisted on Monday. "There are some big guns in this programme. We have got some of the proposals in from the vendors this week and it's looking promising".
The GSMA announced the "3G for All" initiative in June, with the aim of making 3G handsets and services available to users in the developing world.