Faster is good but smarter is better for 3G's future

The next generation of 3G networks will drop the 3G name. More focus on actual business needs would be an even smarter move

The Isle of Man is famous for many things good and bad, but its status as a European telecoms leader is not widely known. Nevertheless, it hosted Europe's first operational 3G network, and now Manx Telecom - part of O2 - is promising a similar spectacular, this time with High Speed Packet Download Access (HSPDA). Also known as 3.5G - but not by Manx Telecom - this is promised as true wireless broadband. Exact figures will have to wait for real life, but it's safe to hope for megabits a second at first, tens of megabits later.

Even assuming the trials are successful and there's no reappearance of the three witches that haunted early 3G - handset availability, service reliability and power consumption - there will be two major problems to overcome.

802.16, another family of standards for wireless broadband, is being heavily promoted as a direct competitor to HSPDA. Each side has plenty of bad things to say about the other, but the 802.16 clan has a much better path to get hardware into laptops while HSPDA is a much better fit with existing cellular infrastructure. If they decide to work together it could be beautiful, yet the potential is there for another industry-led wireless standards debacle.

Even if HSPDA and 802.16 walk calmly hand-in-hand to technical perfection, a bigger monster needs to be slain. Manx Telecom implicitly acknowledges this in its decision not to include the term 3G in whatever name it chooses for its new service. 3G has failed commercially for businesses, and not in ways that can be fixed merely by speeding it up.

Telcos and businesses alike have been very bad at identifying new service models, and even worse at implementing them. In Cannes earlier this year, the 3GSM trade show was full of people claiming to have tuned into the unique needs of business, but scratch the surface and the talk was all of hardware, network and politics -- better screens and audio, faster connections, new alliances formed and old enmities forgotten. All nice enough, but still a long way from a cogent commercial case.

3G epitomises that failure. ZDNet UK uses 3G data services because there is no sensible alternative, but they were late in arriving, remain expensive and can be frustratingly unreliable. A faster version of that would be no more impressive and no more useful: Manx Telecom is right to distance itself from this experience.

It'll take more than a change of name. Unless the mobile telecommunications world concentrates on what the users find valuable rather than what the engineers and marketeers think looks impressive, future services will be no more tempting