We've just completed our first test of 3G data cards -- one each from every network offering such a service, and you can read our findings here. In brief: they work, mostly. They're useful, certainly. But they're nowhere near good enough and the service costs far too much. Not good news for the networks that have sunk tens of billions of pounds in licence fees and infrastructure.
If 3G operators want to see a return on their investment, then they must get the mass market going as soon as possible. There is no niche market on earth big enough to repay the debt, let alone make anyone some money -- it has to be popular, which means it has to be cheap. And the idea of selling expensive services in a restricted environment is similarly flawed: as wired broadband providers have found, this is not the reason people want to be connected.
If 3G doesn't get its act together soon, then Wi-Fi or WiMax -- or even some smart use of 2.5G -- will move in on the action. There is a huge market for truly mobile broadband: the technology that gets there first will win.
3G can only be that technology if it drops its ridiculously high barriers to entry. There is no point in having interface cards that come encumbered with elephantine configuration software if we are used to Wi-Fi's click and go.
In fact, there's no point in having interface cards. The Wi-Fi experience is that the hardware is built in and arrives working. 3G has to get to that point, and that means persuading laptop makers to include the capability as standard. Wi-Fi's there already: domestic broadband created the market and the laptop makers leapt in gratefully.
3G's challenge is to recreate the expectations and experience that people have of domestic broadband, but countrywide. Expecting anyone to get excited by an expensive, unreliable, cumbersome service that costs a fortune is only an option for those who are selling the only game in town -- and telcos no longer have the comfort of monopoly.