With NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s commercial 3G (third-generation) mobile phone service, Foma, now in operation, users have been searching for applications that take advantage of the network’s high-speed packet data transmission capabilities. To bridge this gap, NTT DoCoMo has been working closely with corporate clients to develop applications that take advantage of 3G technology.
One such corporate client, Takenaka Corp., has been looking at Foma since before trials began. NTT DoCoMo approached the company more than a year before the test service began in mid-2001 and the two companies have been engaged in developing corporate uses for Foma ever since.
Takenaka is one of several “general construction” companies in Japan. These companies are more than just builders, handling coordination of everything from planning and consulting to constructing and administrating a building. At each stage, communication between workers and clients is essential to the smooth operation of a project.
For the Foma trials, Takenaka and NTT DoCoMo unveiled three application models that they tested with the 3G network.
The first application relied on Foma’s streaming video function. The idea was to allow handset owners to access and browse moving images from a company database that carries content such as product information and operation manuals.
The second uses Foma’s high-speed data transmission service to allow for automatic filing of still images. Construction work in progress needs to be periodically reported upon and Foma handset can be used to record and send still images of the work. The images, complete with captions, are sent via Foma’s 3G network and the Internet to a company server, which automatically files them in a database, along with information of which handset the images came from and when. This system also allows users to access and search the database for particular images from a Foma handset.
The final corporate application developed for the trials centred on the monitoring of live video images. In this application, a video camera connected via a computer using a Foma PC card modem sends live images that can be browsed from another Foma handset. The system can be used for observation of a fixed-point or purposes.
Despite some initial problems during the trials, the quality of the 3G network got better when the commercial service launched on Oct. 1, Yohsuke Gokan, a representative of the Information Engineering Division of Takenaka. “The network connection became better,” he said, comparing Foma’s commercial service with the trial. “The battery lasts longer (in the commercial handset) than the trial handsets, too. Now it lasts at least for a day.”
Still, in a country where cellular handsets will routinely last more than a week in standby mode, a day is nothing to boast about.
Takenaka is currently using a total of 20 Foma terminals, seven each of NEC Corp.’s standard type handset and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.’s videophone handset, and six PC cards for data transmission, Gokan said.
Beyond the technical quality of the network, questions arise as to the merit of using the 3G networks to implement these operations. Some of them could be done with current 2G (second-generation) and 2.5G (enhanced second-generation) mobile technology, Gokan said, adding that the only difference compared to 3G technology is the transmission speed.
The transmission of still images, for example, can be done using a 2G network, such as that operated by KDDI Corp. which is capable of 64Kbps packet data transmission. However, if 3G handsets are able to offer superior image processing capabilities this would give Foma an edge over 2G and 2.5G networks, Gokan said.
A couple of the experiments conducted by Takenaka and NTT DoCoMo do benefit from 3G technology. Because of its faster speed, the first application model allows high-volume data, such as operating manuals and instructional videos, to be browsed on the move, Gokan said. “Whenever we needed to operate machinery according to its manual, we used to watch a videotape first and then went back to the work site,” he said.
The third application model, remote video monitoring, is the one that perhaps makes the best use of the Foma system and its high-speed packet transmission system. “This cannot be done with 2G, because we even think that (the 3G transmission speed of) 384Kbps is not fast enough for security monitoring of, for example, unattended work by robots, which needs accurate real-time observation,” Gokan said.
Whether the system gives the company a true advantage or proves to be better than competing technologies, such as wireless LAN, remains to be seen.
During its trials, Takenaka was looking to use Foma in instances were competing systems would be unsuitable. “Where it is suitable, we will adopt other networks and bigger devices. With 3G, we want to build systems that can only be created using 3G handsets and not PDAs (personal digital assistants),” Gokan said.
“These are trials after all, we are still in the middle of experimenting with systems for the better,” Gokan said. “At this point, we see many possibilities in 3G, but every feature has not been made good use of, yet.”
The comment echoes views held by senior executives at NTT DoCoMo. Keiji Tachikawa, president and chief executive officer of NTT DoCoMo admitted at a recent conference in Tokyo that there is still a lot to be done with Foma. “We should be more patient, telecommunication service is a long term operation,” he said.
However, Tachikawa remains confident that Foma will achieve or surpass its first target: 150,000 users by the end of March.
“As we are targeting corporate users, our goal to achieve 150,000 subscribers by the end of March next year is very realistic,” he said, suggesting that talks are underway with several potential corporate clients. “The groundwork (with corporations) has been done, and many new handsets, including PDA types and small PC types, will roll out from the end of this year.”