3G : NTT DoCoMo’s 3G service has 1 million subscribers

Subscriptions to NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s Foma third-generation (3G) mobile telephone network hit the one million mark on Tuesday, the company said Wednesday.

The landmark comes after several months of strong growth for the service, which had at one point started to look like something of a white elephant for NTT DoCoMo because it was failing to attract the attention of many users during its first year and a half of commercial service.

At the end of February this year, after 17 months of service, Foma had attracted a total of 191,500 subscribers, according to figures from the Telecommunication Carriers Association (TCA). Compare that with the company’s older second-generation cellular service, which signed up 4.6 million new subscribers over the same period, according to the same source.

At the beginning of this year however, subscriptions began to take off after several new handsets were launched that tackled some of the biggest complaints users had with the original terminals, namely their large size and short battery life.

Consumer interest couldn’t have come at a better time for the carrier, which had spent most of the past year telling critics that all was well and its target of 320,000 subscribers by the end of March was unchanged. At the beginning of March and with monthly new subscriptions running in the low tens of thousands it looked like a target that was impossible to attain. However, in a surprise worthy of a movie script, NTT DoCoMo proudly announced 329,000 subscribers at the end of March, just above the long-held target.

Since then subscriptions have continued to climb, hitting half a million users in mid-June and increasing by more than 200,000 subscribers in September to land at the one million mark on the final day of the month, after exactly two years of commercial service.

Reaching a million subscribers doesn’t make Foma the most popular 3G service in the world. South Korean operators offer 3G services based on CDMA2000 1x Evolution Data Only (EvDO) technology, and market leader SK Telecom Co. Ltd. had around 1.8 million subscribers with 3G handsets on its network at the end of September, according to Kwon Chul Kuen, a company spokesman.

Third-generation services based on Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) have also been launched in several European countries and in Japan by Vodafone KK. Japan will get its third 3G network when KDDI Corp. launches its network later this year as an upgrade to its current network based on CDMA2000 1x technology.

On Wednesday, Verizon Wireless Inc. will launch a 3G service in the Washington, D.C. and San Diego metropolitan areas, based on the same technology in use in South Korea.