Mobile TV and '3G on steroids' are all the rage in Barcelona

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The Independent Online

On the road from Barcelona airport into town, a giant hand cradling a massive Samsung handset straddles the carriageway. The symbolism could not be clearer: the Spanish coastal town has the telecoms industry in the palm of its hand. Quite literally, in fact, because this is the week 40,000 executives, analysts, investors and general nerdy hangers-on have descended on the Catalan capital for a four-day geek fest of the very latest in mobile telephony.

In the conference labyrinth just off Plaza Espana in the heart of the city sit all the gadgets, services and gimmicks you never knew you wanted and, cynics add, probably never will. Phones that will stream live images of this summer's World Cup football matches in Germany; devices that let you watch television on the move as easily as tuning into Radio 4 in your car.

Swimming through the alphabet soup that passes for the world of telecoms, where people talk in consonant riddles and barely a day passes without the invention of another new acronym, are the cream of an industry desperate to keep the world talking.

It is the first year Barcelona has hosted the 3GSM World Congress, having wrested it from Cannes after the event outgrew the French resort. For the industry, the change of scene is significant. It represents a coming of age for a sector that is hitting maturity, with all the problems that presents.

As Ben Wood, at the industry watchers Gartner, put it: "It has gone from having a village atmosphere to being a fully fledged trade show." Almost 1,000 companies, from the biggest network operators to the smallest content providers, jostle for space, each looking for the next big thing to flog to consumers.

Everyone arrived in Barcelona expecting the advent of mobile television to dominate the agenda. And in a sense they were right. Swelling the ranks of exhibitors was a significant increase in the number of representatives from the media and music industries.

The biggest drum roll was reserved for the unveiling of what is expected to be Europe's first nationwide digital television broadcast service for mobile phones. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer dominated the afternoon's proceedings with the launch of the new technology in partnership with Virgin Mobile and BT Group. All television addicts need is one of the new DAB-enabled handsets and a subscription to Virgin Mobile. Alternatively, football addicts can tune into some of this summer's World Cup action, with the right phone and a deal with T-Mobile.

But unlike the shows of the past, which have seen executives make all manner of impossible promises about the birth of new services, people were taking the advent of the new era with the proverbial dose of salt it deserved.

Even Rene Obermann, the chief executive of T-Mobile, was being circumspect. "I don't think we should over-hype it," he said. "Will mobile television take off? It's not a question. I think it will but only in certain market segments." What those segments will be is the million-dollar question for networks that have struggled to reverse the slide in average revenue per user despite the tentative take-up of 3G.

In the meantime, Mr Obermann was one of 15 network bosses pinning their hopes on the launch of the next generation of text messaging - personal instant messaging (IM) on mobile phones. In partnership with Vodafone and Orange in the UK, and a variety of other operators from China Mobile to Telefonica, T-Mobile hopes the service will enable the industry to wrest control of the world of IM back from the likes of Yahoo!, Google and MSN. The scope for growth is huge, with the operators' combined customer base of 700 million subscribers dwarfing the internet-based IM community of 300 million.

But the significance of the move extends beyond a desire to tread on the toes of Microsoft and the like. It showed network operators are taking seriously the need to work together to make new services a success after the disaster of picture messaging. As Arun Sarin, the chief executive of Vodafone, explained: "We need to compete at a retail level but build a common infrastructure."

After IM, the biggest headline-grabbing acronym was HSDPA, which if you want to get technical stands for high-speed downlink packet access. Variously dubbed "3.5G", "4G", or more simply "3G on steroids", it promises to make the world of the mobile internet a reality because it offers the prospect of accessing data speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps. That compares with the standard speed accessible with 3G handsets of 384 kilobits. T-Mobile claims it will be the first operator to bring the new speeds to UK mobile phone users at some point later this year. Hamid Akhavan, the German operator's chief technology officer, said yesterday that in future "users will be limited by the size of their pockets, not by the speed of connectivity". As ever, the launch depends on manufacturers coming up with viable, affordable handsets and the infrastructure being upgraded to take the new speeds.

New technologies aside, what people really wanted to talk about was the one issue that network executives kept brushing under the carpet. Namely that of excessive roaming charges and how the industry intended to respond after being rapped on the knuckles by Brussels last week. Doubtless the question dominated some of the private powwows, furrowing brows as executives sipped champagne on some of the luxury yachts lining Barcelona's Port Vell, even if they preferred not to comment on the answer.

The other big issue hanging over the proceedings was the old chestnut of whether mobile phone users actually wanted the new devices and services being touted around. One industry executive thought not. He said: "It may be a new venue, but not much has changed. Everybody is still talking technology and trying to see how clever they can be rather than thinking about what customers want."

A sobering thought for network operators still desperate to recoup the £22.5bn they splashed out on the brave new world of 3G all those years ago.

What everyone was talking about

* T-Mobile's plans to attack BT's monopoly on fixed lines in the UK.

* Microsoft and Vodafone's challenge to RIM's Blackberry.

* Nokia's handset that can switch between WiFi broadband and a cellular network.

* Vodafone's boss, Arun Sarin, who said he had no plans to sell the operator's stake in US network Verizon.

* Vodafone's tie-up with Google to offer customers an easy method of "mobile search".

* Mobile operators' launch of personal instant messaging.

* Mobile television deal in a three-way alliance between Microsoft, BT Group and Virgin Mobile.

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