3G: First-ever UMTS phone call claimed

H3G SpA, an Italian third-generation(3G) mobile operator controlled by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., this week demonstrated what the company said was the world’s first mobile phone call using UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) technology.

“It’s the first phone call in the world using the new technology over a real network,” Vincenzo Novari, H3G’s chief executive officer, told reporters at the company’s base on the outskirts of Rome.

The call was made by Italy’s communications minister, Maurizio Gasparri, who used his mobile videophone to ring Guido Gentili, the editor of Italian business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore. “This is a significant leap into the future, given that with this technology you can see images and navigate on the Internet,” Gasparri told reporters. “Obviously, like all novelties, UMTS will need a bit of time before it becomes a mass technology.”

Calls made via 3G technology based on UMTS or its equivalent outside of Europe, W-CDMA, may not be considered as much of a novelty as Gasparri indicated, however. For example, though the H3G call was well-publicized, mobile carrier Wind SpA has been testing calls on a 3G network in Italy as well. Elsewhere in the world, carriers are testing 3G mobile services, and NTT DoCoMo Inc. started commercial 3G services in Japan based on W-CDMA last year.

H3G, which is marketing its new service under the brand name 3, is investing US$4.9 billion in the Italian service and expects to cover at least 80 cities by the end of the year, Novari said. “We’re playing the role of the hare. Without us, the third generation of mobile phones would have taken a few more years to become a reality,” he said. The company will begin distributing its first videophones to experimental customers by next month and commercial service is due to begin in January, with 3 reaching break-even in 2005, Novari said.

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