3G : NTT DoCoMo targets 25M users of 3G by 2007

NTT DoCoMo Inc. hopes to have 25 million subscribers on its third-generation cellular network by early 2007, the company said Wednesday.

By the end of its 2006 fiscal year, which occurs at the end of March 2007, the carrier is hoping to have a total of 50 million subscribers of which it hopes half are on the third-generation (3G) network, said Eijun Tanaka, a spokesman for NTT DoCoMo.

NTT DoCoMo had 46.2 million subscribers at the end of May of which just over four million were on the 3G network, according to figures from the Telecommunications Carriers Association (TCA).

The 3G service, which NTT DoCoMo offers under the Foma brand name, was launched by NTT DoCoMo in October 2001 and got off to a rocky start. Complaints of poor network coverage and short battery life left the service with 89,400 subscribers at the end of March 2002, which was well below the company’s target of 150,000 subscribers. Poor take-up of the service also forced it to amend its March 2003 target of 1.38 million down to 320,000 users, which it just managed to meet by reporting 329,000 users at the time.

Subscriptions to the service began to take off in April 2003 when the company began offering handsets that offered a set of functions competitive with second-generation (2G) terminals and with similar battery life and physical size. Now the company is shifting its focus to Foma and has talked about discontinuing 2G handset development within the next one or two handset release cycles.

As the number of users of Foma has risen, NTT DoCoMo has seen a drop in subscribers to its 2G network. Numbers for that network peaked in August 2003 at 44 million and were at 42.2 million at the end of May, according to the TCA figures.

Foma is currently Japan’s most successful WCDMA (Wideband CDMA) based network. It easily leads Vodafone KK’s service, which launched at the end of 2002 and had 173,000 subscribers at the end of May this year. Vodafone initially faced the same teething troubles as NTT DoCoMo with network and handset issues and has recently launched new handsets and begun to actively promote the service.

KDDI Corp.’s Au network has the largest number of 3G subscribers. It is based on the competing CDMA2000 technology, one of the features of which is an easy upgrade path from second-generation networks and services. As a result the technology was quickly rolled out and Au had 14.4 million subscribers at the end of May. Au’s total subscriber base is 17.4 million users.

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