Vodafone: Live! and waiting for 3G

For many users of early mobile data systems in Europe, the technology has been long on hype, short on help. Now a leading cell phone operator has delivered some subscriber numbers for a new mobile data service that is proving to be both useful and fun.

Vodafone Group PLC, Europe’s largest mobile operator, has met its target of signing up one million customers for its Live! Internet messaging and video-camera service within five months, the company said Wednesday in a statement.

The group has sold 375,000 Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) phones in Germany, 220,000 in the U.K. and 190,000 in Italy, it said. The service is also available in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Spain.

Live! not only allows customers to take and transmit pictures, send and receive e-mail and access customized Web sites but also to download games and ring tones with phones that are easy to use.

The Vodafone announcement comes on the heals of a report published Wednesday by U.K. consultancy Analysys Ltd. showing strong mobile data usage in 2002 and forecasting substantial growth through 2008.

Mobile operators in Western Europe generated an average 12 per cent of their revenue from non-voice services in 2002, with one operator, 02 (Germany) GmbH & Co. OHG, posting mobile data revenue of nearly 20 per cent in the fourth quarter, according to the report. Analysys expects revenue from non-voice mobile services in Western Europe to increase to 24 per cent by 2005 and as high as 36 per cent by 2008.

These numbers offer encouragement to mobile operators in the region after the disappointing launch of mobile data services based on Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and the initial slow take-up of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). Having spent over US$107 billion on third-generation (3G) mobile broadband licenses, European cell phone operators are keen to spur demand for new mobile data services ahead of their 3G rollout plans.

Vodafone could introduce commercial 3G service in Europe as early as October if sufficient quality handsets are available and manufacturers can ensure reliable call handover between second-generation (2G) GSM and 3G networks, said Janine Young, a Vodafone spokeswomen. “We aren’t setting a hard date but are saying that we could be ready to roll in October or November if we have enough phones and no call-handover issues,” she said.

In the meantime, Vodafone plans to push Live!. The operator will introduce the service in Egypt, New Zealand and Australia over the next few weeks, Young said.

Japan could be another market for Live!, according the spokeswoman. Currently, Vodafone offers a mobile Internet service, called J-Sky, through its majority-owned Japanese subsidiary J-Phone Co. Ltd. “This service was launched three years ago and designed specifically for Japanese users,” she said. “But Live! could be a possibility for Japan. We’re considering this.”

Vodafone hopes to see a huge chunk of its 112.5 million worldwide subscriber base sign up for its MMS offering, in addition to winning new customers.

In Europe, the U.K. operator has already stolen the early lead of NTT DoCoMo Inc., which has introduced its I-mode mobile Internet service in several countries. I-mode has between 400,000 and 500,000 I-mode subscribers in Europe after nearly a year of commercial service, according to Kei-ichi Enoki, managing director of DoCoMo’s I-mode domestic and international business unit.