O2 Ireland will tomorrow launch the i-mode mobile internet service to pre-pay and post-pay customers, becoming the 14th operator in the world to roll out the service developed by Japan’s NTT DoCoMo. The service will be accessible via O2 Ireland’s GPRS and W-CDMA networks, and three i-mode handsets – the NEC N3431, Samsung S500I and Samsung Z320I – will be available from Friday. The trio of phones are the cellco’s first batch of commercially available 3G handsets.
In August 2002 O2 was awarded a class B UMTS concession, for which it paid EUR44.4 million up front from a total EUR114.3 million phased over 15 years. It began trialling 3G data services in Dublin in December 2003, and extended the pilot to include Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny in April 2004. In September 2004 O2 launched its ‘Connection Manager’ integrated mobile data card, which offers a combined GPRS, W-CDMA and Wireless LAN service for PC and laptop users. The datacard service offers high speed mobile data access by automatically selecting the best technology available in any given area, including the company’s 22 W-LAN hotspots in hotels and railway stations across the country.
However, it was not until June 2005 that the cellco announced plans to launch commercial 3G services, saying first that it would begin offering the technology before Christmas before eventually settling on the October date. Its 3G i-mode service will be offered in direct competition to the Vodafone Live! multimedia content platform of rival Vodafone Ireland. Vodafone has been offering 3G handsets since November 2004. A third 3G operator, Hutchison 3G, launched commercial UMTS services in July.
The introduction of 3G services is seen as vital to kick-start growth for O2, after subscriber take-up slowed to a virtual standstill by the middle of 2005, and the cause of its decision to delay the 3G launch is not entirely clear. The most likely reason for the indecision is purely financial. After committing to such a heavy outlay in purchasing the 3G concession, it is thought that O2 wanted to gauge the near-saturated market’s readiness for next generation services before it ploughed more money into commercial rollout. The O2 Group contracted Lucent to assess its Europe-wide wireless infrastructure in February 2003, in the hope that the US company might unearth a means of optimising its existing voice, SMS, MMS and data services to lessen the financial impact of an upgrade to 3G. Lucent was handed the task of building out O2’s W-CDMA networks in Ireland, the UK and Germany four months later.