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U.K. cell provider launches 3G handsets

Orange unveils its new 3G offering, with rival mm02 trying to spoil party with teases of its own 2005 plans.

Orange has taken the wraps off 3G aimed mainly at consumers four days before handsets are due in stores, claiming to have the best network and set of devices available yet in the U.K.

Despite an attempt by rival mmO2 to spoil the party with a press release outlining plans to start using a faster technology next summer, Orange was in a bullish mood this morning. The France Telecom-owned operator is launching services in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain as well as the U.K., with roaming from the outset.

Applications of the technology will include video calling and voice mail, online games, rich content such as "Star Wars" clips and surfing via the Orange World portal and across the wider Web.

Nigel Hall, Orange 3G launch director, said there was good value in the launch prices of 70 pounds, 50 pounds and--until the end of January--"an aggressive early-adopter" 30 pounds ($135, $97 and $58, respectively) per month. The rates include at least 60 minutes of video calls, 50MB of data usage, voice and text messaging.

The company also claims the "most comprehensive launch portfolio of devices," clearly trying to trump Vodafone's glitzy 3G launch last month, even though Orange offerings from Motorola and Nokia won't be available until next year.

Orange claims to have the best 3G network in the sense that its W-CDMA 3G technology and GSM 2G network are well-integrated, meaning fewer calls are supposed to be dropped--compared to rival networks from 3 and Vodafone--as customers stray out of areas of 3G coverage while remaining on a call. The operator now claims 70 percent coverage in the U.K. by population, up four percentage points from the time of its 3G data card rollout in July this year.

Carrie Pawsey, wireless analyst at Ovum, said it was too early to know for sure who would have the most reliable coverage. "It's very difficult to tell until the networks are up and running," he said, "but it follows the situation should be better for a 2G to 3G operator."

Orange's current 3G launch devices include the LG U8150, the Samsung Z107, the Sony Ericsson Z1010 and the Sanyo S750, which is exclusive to Orange and is also the Japanese company's first foray into the U.K. mobile market.

Making waves
Rival cellular provider mmO2 said today its 3G service will be faster than everybody else's--when it's up and running.

The mobile operator explained it will be the first in Europe to offer HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and IMS (Internet Protocol Multimedia Services) with download speeds of 3.6Mbps when it launches the service on the Isle of Man next summer. The service will only initially be available to customers with laptops using special plug-in data cards.

It also promised its main 3G offering--scheduled to go live in February in the U.K., Ireland and Germany--will be upgraded to the higher speed sometime next year.

The announcement came just hours before Orange unveiled its 3G offering.

The new mmO2 network, built by Lucent, will ultimately support data speeds of up to 14.4Mbps and will therefore offer speeds equivalent to fixed-line access, according to the mobile company. Customers should eventually be able to download large e-mail attachments, DVD-quality film and audio as well as interactive multiplayer games and push-to-watch services.

The initial limitation of the service is largely determined by the capacity of current handsets. Product announcements for the high-speed service are expected before or around the end of 2005.

And while O2 networks are likely to use so-called 3.5G HSDPA technology earlier than some others--just like GSM operator Cingular in the United States--Orange told it has been testing the technology for three months now.

It declined to say whether such an upgrade would go to existing equipment makers. O2 is working with Lucent, which lost out on many W-CDMA 3G contracts, for both HSDPA and IMS (Internet Protocol Multimedia Services), a hefty investment.

Tony Hallett of reported from London.'s Ron Coates contributed.