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Japan unveils 3G wireless phone network

As Japanese phone giant NTT DoCoMo launches a high-speed 3G wireless network Monday, analysts will be watching for any expected technological glitches.
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor
Japanese phone giant NTT DoCoMo on Monday will unveil the world's fastest phone network plus three new phones capable of things like real-time videoconferencing or sending and receiving email attachments with 10,000 characters.

The network will be first turned on in the Tokyo area, where some 5,000 residents have been using it on a trial basis since May. It will then spread throughout the country in the coming months.

"We are more than ready," NTT DoCoMo President Keiji Tachikawa said in a news conference last week.

The wireless industry will be craning its collective necks, but not to see whether customers are taking to videoconferencing or sending email with giant attachments, said IDC's wireless analyst Keith Waryas. Instead, he expects the focus will be solely on the expected technological glitches that will most assuredly occur, he said.

He explains that the Japanese phone market is very unique to the rest of the world. It has the largest subscribers to "data" services, like cruising the Internet on a handset, because there are more cell phones than computers in Japan, Waryas said. So American wireless carriers who are priming their own high-speed networks and services will do well to not focus on what Japanese users are doing with the network, but how well the handsets are working.

"Tokyo will become a test market to see how well the handsets hold up," Waryas said. "Verizon won't be able to say this application is doing well, so bring it over here to the United States."

American carriers continue to take a wait-and-see approach. "We'll see after they introduce it, what they actually have," said Jim Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, the leading wireless carrier in the United States, which plans on unveiling its own high-speed network by the end of the year. "Frankly, all the carriers will be there eventually with those kinds of things."

American wireless users watching events overseas can expect, at the very least, some sticker shock. The least expensive of NTT's three phones, the FOMA P2401, costs US$250. The most expensive is the FOMA P2101V, which is priced at US$501. Panasonic/Matsushita Communications Industrial and NEC manufacture the phones.

When, and if, the network goes up on Monday, it will either be the first in the world or the second, depending on who is doing the boasting. Korean cell phone users have been using a so-called third-generation network, with its accompanying always-on capabilities that zoom calls and data at broadband speeds, for at least a year, says Qualcomm, which has outfitted the carriers in Korea with their gear.

American carriers Verizon, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless, which is partly owned by NTT DoCoMo, aren't that far behind and all say they will be watching the launch closely.

The American carriers all plan to introduce similar networks in the near future. Some are already here, with AT&T Wireless beating every American carrier to the punch by launching, in limited supply, a high-speed network in Seattle for business users. Verizon also says it has a network in the New York and New Jersey area ready for use, but it is now waiting on the handsets to arrive.

American wireless observers think there will be a smattering of glitches to hit the NTT network soon after it's launched, the inevitable by-product of any new technology.

American carriers are not the only interested parties. Carriers in Europe, which have invested more than US$100 billion to buy the radio frequencies needed for the higher speed networks, will also be keeping a close watch on NTT's successes and failures.

Vodafone Group concedes that the launch is an important event, unlikely words from one of NTT's biggest competitors. "It will be good for confidence," Vodafone chief executive Chris Gent told Reuters on a visit to Tokyo last week.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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