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Getting Ahead of the 3G Pack

Getting Ahead of the 3G Pack

The early days of NTT DoCoMo's pioneering third-generation mobile phone service are proving to be a trial in more than one sense of the word.

The 3G WCDMA (wideband CDMA) service, called FOMA, was supposed to offer a dramatic leap in technology and "stress-free communications," as the Japanese operator claimed in an advertisement placed earlier this year.

They had promised a state-of-the-art mobile phone service, with dramatically faster transmission speeds and effortless downloading of video and music on the go. Instead, FOMA has been greeted with a barrage of criticism over reported bugs and what some believe are even more serious problems.

A survey by DoCoMo of some of the 4,500 users of FOMA for the two months since trial services began at the end of May has shown disappointing results. The main problems have been a low connection rate, screen freezing, overheated batteries, short battery life, difficulty accessing i-mode (DoCoMo's mobile Internet service), and lack of content.

The big question is whether these problems are simply teething troubles to be expected in any new system, or whether they stem from a fundamental flaw either in the WCDMA standard or in the way DoCoMo has built their system. For example Yasumasa Goda, telecoms analyst at Merrill Lynch in Tokyo, claims that FOMA's problems - such as overheating batteries - "are much more basic than software bugs."

DoCoMo's failure to fix some of these basic problems before they launched their trial service stems from the fact that they're inherent to the WCDMA standard, and that, according to Goda, means they will not be able to fix it in a few months.

Yoshitake Matsuo, senior general manager of NEC's mobile wireless business unit, notes that some of the problems with FOMA arise from the use of GSM for the core network. (NEC, along with Fujitsu, is a key supplier of 3G network equipment to DoCoMo.) For example, he says the slower connection to i-mode compared with a 2G phone stems from the fact that the specifications for the 3G core network, where the base station communicates with the switches, is based on GSM.

The same can be said about the need to recharge the batteries almost daily. For Japanese mobile phone users accustomed to PDC phones, this is unacceptable. Whereas PDC phones are energy efficient, reducing the need to recharge the battery, GSM phones consume energy even when they're not in use, hence the need to recharge FOMA batteries more often than with existing PDC phones. But the WCDMA protocol is based on GSM.

Industry officials also suspect that DoCoMo's problems with 3G stem in part from their attempt to control the entire system on their own, rather than open it up to manufacturers. As Chris Gent, chief executive of Vodafone, points out: "Japan has had a proprietary system - PDC - which has enabled an end-to-end Internet experience to be developed for customers, with the operators defining every aspect of it, including what the manufacturer should do. That isn't the case when you start going into the open systems world of WCDMA or GSM, where you have to work to an international standard, and no one is allowed to have a proprietary right to define things. So it's a very different world we're moving into with WCDMA, different than that which DoCoMo has experienced with PDC.

DoCoMo brushes aside these concerns, believing that the problems they've faced with FOMA stem from a need to fine-tune the software, rather than from any basic problem with the WCDMA standard or their implementation of it. The operator reminds their critics - and many of those familiar with the introduction of new telecoms technologies agree - that a completely new system such as WCDMA is bound to have bugs in it, and claims they're on track to clear the bugs.

Although DoCoMo has identified as many as 328 problems - of which 235 have been resolved - this is not a surprisingly large number, says Eisuke Iwabuchi, general manager of Fujitsu's mobile communication and wireless systems division. The initially low connection rate, for example, was something that could be tackled only after trial services were started, he claims. This is because there are so many combinations of potential problems that could arise when the system is actually used, which cannot be anticipated in the lab, Iwabuchi explains.

Connection rates have now gone up from an initial 50% to 90% and are headed toward 98%, and the problems of screen freezing and poor connection have also been resolved. Two months after trial services began, Keiji Tachikawa, DoCoMo's president, expressed confidence that the operator was on track to start offering commercial services in October.

Whether his confidence is misplaced remains to be seen, but there's one thing on which both optimists and pessimists alike seem to agree: DoCoMo and their suppliers may face problems with FOMA, but if and when WCDMA services take off, the trials and tribulations will provide DoCoMo and their key suppliers with vital expertise that will place them firmly ahead of the pack in offering a stress-free and attractive 3G experience.

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