Exactly as scripted, NTT DoCoMo Inc. began operation of its Foma third-generation (3G) cellular service on Oct. 1, but that was one of the few things that went according to DoCoMo’s plans.

The launch made DoCoMo the first mobile operator in the world to offer a commercial 3G service – but only just. The full service was launched late, handsets weren’t ready, a key feature was lacking and, to cap it all, the company almost lost the race to be the first 3G operator to a small European carrier on an island that few people can pinpoint on a map.

In its first month of service, Foma attracted 10,300 users, said Tomoko Homma, a spokeswoman for the company. DoCoMo has so far been careful with its predictions for the service and has only issued one firm target, to which it has stuck: 150,000 users by the end of March 2002.

Foma users are given the choice of three terminals: the N2001 from NEC Corp., which is a 3G version of a current second-generation (2G) handset; the P2101V from Matsushita Communication Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic), which is a videophone; and the P2401, also from Matsushita, which is a PC Card data modem.

Compared to current, non-3G handsets, the new telephones are more expensive. When they first went on sale, the N2001 sold for 42,800 yen (US$350) and the P2101 for 62,800 yen. The most expensive 2G handset costs somewhere between 20,000 yen and 30,000 yen.

Initially, the videophones have proved to be the hit product, perhaps because they offer the promise of a genuinely new application. Many of the customers have been couples, according to reports, although supplies have been short. While DoCoMo initially delivered 20,000 units of the N2001 to stores, only a few thousand P2101V videophones were available.

Technically, the new service, which is based on W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access), is superior to Japan’s existing 2G format. The differences can be mainly seen in the two data transmission services offered with the system. A packet-based service provides transmission at speeds up to 384Kbps while a circuit-switched service, the base for the videophone service, runs at 64Kbps. In contrast, DoCoMo’s second generation service is capable of packet transmission at 14.4Kbps.

DoCoMo had originally planned to start the Foma service in late May but, as the company’s self-imposed deadline approached, things started to look like they wouldn’t fall into place in time. Vendors had yet to demonstrate working prototypes of 3G cell phones and local press reports talked of problems on the company’s new network.

The delay was confirmed in late April when, on April 26, company president Keiji Tachikawa announced the company would launch an “introductory service.” That service involved 5,000 hand-picked users who received free handsets but still had to pay monthly airtime bills – something that enabled the company to call the service commercial and argue that they had met the original deadline.

“History will prove it, May 30 is the launch date of IMT2000,” Tachikawa said. “This is a commercial service and we will receive money from the users. This is not a fake.”

The following weeks proved just how unready things were – while conventional handsets were distributed on May 30, video handsets weren’t available until a month later and trial users complained of numerous problems with the service.

“At the moment, I can’t use it for an important business call,” said Yukio Nakano, a trial user with one an NEC-manufactured standard handset speaking to IDG News Service a little over a week after the trials began.

Nakano welcomed the service’s faster data throughput and said audio quality was good – when calls actually connected. At that stage around one in every two calls either did not connect or was cut-off during the call, he said.

He also complained of short battery life. The handset required recharging every day, according to Nakano – a big difference from most Japanese cell phones, which can often last more than a week in standby mode. “I had a full battery and I sent four e-mail messages but after that the phone already started running out of power,” he said pointing to the low battery meter on the display.

By the time video handsets started arriving in trial user’s hands, some of the worst connectivity problems had been cleared up but some complaints persisted.

One user of that service likened Foma and the handset to a toy – it is cool to play around with but it doesn’t actually do anything useful, said Takeshi Ando, an online entertainment software producer who makes broadband content, such as three-dimensional animation.

Ando repeated complaints about the battery life and unreliability of connections and also criticized the handset’s size and weight – at 150 grams it is at least 50 grams heavier than most Japanese 2G handsets and is also around a centimetre thicker.

“It’s now just another I-mode (service) which can be browsed on a bigger handset,” he said. What he failed to see in the trial service was any new application that took advantage of 3G technology – just current applications running a little faster.

One of the few truly new services to take advantage of 3G technology, a video-clip-on-demand system called I-Motion, was not available when DoCoMo launched the Foma service. Technical problems with handsets have delayed the launch of I-motion, which is now scheduled to take place sometime before the end of the year, leaving DoCoMo with a commercial service that has less features than the trial service.

So why launch Foma when one of the service’s key features was not ready?

For starters, the company’s public image had suffered when it failed to deliver a full commercial service in late May and another delay, coupled with the cooling interest in 3G services around the world, would have dealt a severe blow to the credibility of Foma and DoCoMo.

DoCoMo was also in a race with Manx Telecom Ltd. The operator, a unit of British Telecommunications PLC responsible for telecommunication services on the Isle of Man, a small island between the English and Irish mainland, was pushing hard to launch its own 3G network ahead of DoCoMo.

For DoCoMo, to be beaten to the title of world’s first commercial 3G service, especially given the work it has put in developing the service since 1997, would have been another embarrassment.

In the end, Manx Telecom had its own technical problems and had to concede victory in the race to offer 3G services to DoCoMo which delivered a public relations victory for the Japanese carrier. But the commercial launch of Foma service is just the beginning. DoCoMo’s next challenge is to figure out how best to promote the service to Japanese consumers and businesses and to ensure a steady supply of handsets when demand does begin to take off.