Business third-generation (3G) services in the U.K. came another tiny step closer with the announcement that Vodafone Group PLC is to start trials of a data-only service in some areas, with a commercial launch in the spring.

Despite Hutchison 3G U.K. Ltd.’s 3 service, this is the country’s first data-centric offering, and should please business people who want to do more than the major application suggested by 3.s ad campaign: sending images of themselves sticking their tongues out.

The Vodafone service at launch will cover urban areas such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, and the M4 motorway to Newbury. While Vodafone claims this covers “30 per cent of the U.K.’s population”, it is a far cry from a national 3G network.

Vodafone’s service will be based on data cards for laptops, rather than phones, like the 3G service launched in Germany and Italy in December. The cards transmit data up to 384Kbps when a 3G service is available, and fall back to GPRS speeds at other times.

The trials will be held with a few large corporate customers, with smaller companies coming on board as the trial progresses. “This is the first step along our 3G path,” said Gavin Darby, CEO of Vodafone U.K.

The company’s hesitation in launching a full-blown 3G service with voice-data-and-image handsets has been blamed on various things, including doubts about the market readiness, and about the current quality of such handsets.