Hutch 3G launch takes Ireland by surprise

27 Jul 2005

It’s all happening in the Irish mobile market: just one day after fixed line incumbent eircom announced a deal to buy out Meteor Mobile, the country has a fourth mobile network operator in the shape of Hutchison Whampoa subsidiary Hutchison 3G Ireland. Hutch yesterday rolled out commercial services under the 3 brand name, well ahead of an expected November launch, and says it will attempt to replicate its success in the neighbouring UK by offering 3G voice and data tariffs at discounted prices. 3’s cheapest price plan comes in at EUR25 a month and is bundled with a choice of either 200 voice minutes, or 100 minutes and 100 text messages. The cellco currently has 3G coverage of 60% of the Irish population and offers 2.5G services in the rest of the country via a network roaming deal with Vodafone, which covers 99.5% of the population. 3 is offering five handsets at launch, the cheapest being the NEC 338, which costs EUR19 subject to the buyer agreeing to a one-year, EUR60 a month price plan. Handsets by Nokia, Motorola and LG are also available, and 3 has just signed a deal for delivery of Sony Ericsson’s new K608i videophone.

Hutch paid EUR50.7 million for its UMTS licence in August 2002. Three bidders – itself, Vodafone and O2 – submitted applications for a Class A licence, while just two – Vodafone and O2 – tendered bids for Class B concessions. Hutch received the sole Class A licence, whilst O2 and Vodafone eventually took the Class B concessions. The Class A licence carries an obligation to cover 80% of the population by 2007 and contains additional spectrum (2×15MHz paired and 1×5MHz unpaired), designed to give the licensee enough frequency to allow mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) to use the network. Hutch launched a trial service in Dublin under the 3 banner in September 2003, offering its key corporate partners access to services such as video mobile calling and a range of content. In October 2003 it contracted BT to build and operate all elements of its radio access network in a EUR100 million deal. When an expected commercial launch at the end of 2004 failed to materialise, the cellco became embroiled in rumours over when its service would eventually get off the ground. Vodafone Ireland soft launched its 3G service in mid-2004, whilst O2 Ireland has been trialling services in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny since the end of 2003. At the start of this month Hutch’s rumoured launch date was still November 2005, though the cellco refused to comment on such speculation in what now appears to have been a deliberate ruse.