Vodafone kicks off 3G for business users

Mobile workers who want fast connectivity to their laptops can get twice as much data for their money if they sign up soon

Vodafone kicked its third-generation mobile network into commercial action on Friday by launching a high-speed data service for business users.

The Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data card, which is now on sale, gives a mobile data connection at speeds of up to 385 Kilobits per second (Kbps) downstream and 64Kbps upstream.

The card fits into a PCMCIA slot, and comes with software to help the user manage their connection and keep track of how much data they've downloaded each month.

The mobile giant hopes that the service will prove popular with mobile workers looking to be productive on the move and with IT managers who are keen to get a grip on their firm's remote access.

Bill Morrow, chief executive of Vodafone UK, told journalists on Friday that companies who have trialled the 3G service say that the experience was comparable to working on a standard fixed-line broadband connection.

Given Vodafone's current 3G rollout, the data card will appeal mainly to people who work in major cities. Its third-generation network currently covers London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Belfast, Cardiff, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, Portsmouth, the M25 and the M4.

Vodafone says that this serves 30 percent of the UK population but actually covers more than 40 percent of existing data traffic.

By the autumn, it hopes to reach 50 percent coverage by population and 55 percent by data traffic.

When 3G isn't available, the card will use the Vodafone GPRS network -- which is significantly slower but available almost universally in Britain.

A range of pricing packages are available. The cheapest tariff for 'low users' costs £10 plus VAT per month, and lets the user download five megabytes of data per month. The most expensive tariff, for 'power users', provides 500Mb data per month for £85 per month. Users who download more than their package allows will be charged extra for each additional megabyte of data.

For a low user, the card will cost £180 plus VAT, while a power user will be charged just £50 plus VAT.

Early adopters of Vodafone's 3G service will get a significant "golden hello". Anyone signing up before October will see their monthly data limit doubled -- meaning a power user would be able to download a whole gigabyte of data without incurring additional charges.

Craig Tillotson, Vodafone's UK strategy director, said that people who signed up in time for this double data bundle would enjoy the benefits for the "lifetime of the product".

Vodafone is the second company to offer 3G in Britain, following Hutchison's launch of 3 last year, but the first to offer a 3G data service. Tillotson said to ZDNet UK that Hutchison had focused on the consumer market with 3, rather than targeting business users, and that it made more sense for Vodafone to launch 3G  now that IT budgets are increasing, rather than doing it a couple of years ago when times were still very tough.