DoCoMo details 3G trial service, says 'it's no fake'

NTT DoCoMo President Keiji Tachikawa lashed out on Thursday at suggestions that the third generation (3G) "introductory service" the company plans to launch on May 30 was anything but the world's first commercial 3G service, maintaining it isn't a "fake" and blaming software bugs for the delay to October 1 of a full service launch.

DoCoMo is sticking to long-stated plans to launch 3G services based on W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) in the central Tokyo area and two nearby cities on May 30 but said Thursday that service in the first four months would limited to a few thousand users, all of whom will be required to submit detailed feedback to DoCoMo. Terminals will be available free of charge and users will be asked to pay only for air time. Three kinds of handsets will be available during the initial service and a PC modem card will also be offered.

Tachikawa, speaking at a Tokyo news conference, responded quickly to criticism that the plans amount to little more than a trial and is not the commercial service the company has long been promising and hyping. "History will prove it, May 30 is the launch date of IMT2000," he said. "This is a commercial service and we will receive money from the users. This is not a fake."

He said the plan arose from a combination of bugs in the network -- some of which are still present today -- and lessons learned both last year, when the company's I-mode system collapsed several times after it failed to keep up with subscriber growth, and earlier this year when it found bugs in four models of cell phones after they had begun shipping.

"I did not have this idea a year ago," he said of the introductory service period, "but in the Iridium project an introductory service was used and I suppose the idea came up recently that this could be used in FOMA as well." FOMA is the brand name DoCoMo is using for its 3G service.

Iridium was not a perfect model for Tachikawa to use -- the satellite telephone company launched with great fanfare and after much hype in 1998 but went bankrupt in 2000 after falling US$4.4 billion in debt. It was only this month that service was re-launched under a new company.

Going forward, he said, the company is hoping in October to expand the service to a coverage area extending 30 kilometers around Tokyo, and coverage is expected to be offered in Japan's second and third largest cities, Osaka and Nagoya, from December. Coverage in other major cities in Japan is planned from early 2002.

Despite delaying the start of its full commercial service, the company is sticking to its original target of 150,000 subscribers by March 2002 and is aiming for 6 million users by March 2004 when capital expenditure on the network is expected to have passed 1 trillion yen (US$8.2 billion).

DoCoMo was forced to scale down its 3G launch because, with a month left to launch, bugs still remain in the network, said Shiro Tsuda, executive vice president of the Japanese cellular carrier.

"There are some bugs remaining in the system but prior to May 30 we will continue our efforts debugging and through these efforts we believe it will be possible to provide commercial service to monitors," he said. The bugs mainly relate to the switches and their control systems and were partly due to the most recent round of 3G standardization which was finalized in March this year.

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the main group coordinating the technical standards for 3G wireless services, added support for international roaming to the 3G specification in March and this required DoCoMo to reload software onto the systems that control its 200 base stations now in place throughout Tokyo.

An area not addressed by DoCoMo today although also a problem is the availability of handsets for the service. Only two of ten handset suppliers will be ready to supply handsets when DoCoMo launches its introductory service on May 30 and even today, at the official launch press conference, the company was unable to demonstrate the service and could do no better than plastic models of the new telephones.

Several tariffs will be applied to the introductory service. The basic voice service will be charged at the same rate as DoCoMo's current second generation cellular service while data calls using a 64k-bps circuit-switched mode will cost 1.8 times that of voice calls.

The packet data service, which offers downstream speeds of up to 384k bps, will cost 0.05 yen per packet of 128 bytes -- on DoCoMo's current network one packet costs 0.3 yen. The price reduction reflects the much greater amount of data that will be sent for services such as video on demand -- services that would be prohibitively expensive if charged at the current rate. Tachikawa said additional tariffs would be offered from October 1 when the full service is expected to start.

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