NTT DoCoMo begins mass-market transition to 3G

NTT DoCoMo Inc. will begin selling a new range of 3G handsets in Japan this month that will mark its first attempt to push 3G telephony into the mainstream of the cellular market.

The four handsets, unveiled Wednesday in Tokyo, are smaller and lighter than DoCoMo's current, high-end 3G (third generation) handsets and have fewer bells and whistles, but they still retain several key 3G functions, said Kiyohito Nagata, managing director of DoCoMo's product department. These include a megapixel-class camera, video telephony, a built-in music player and support for the latest ring-tones.

The handsets will appeal to users who aren't looking for the most cutting-edge technologies but still value certain 3G features that fit with their lifestyles, he said.

Among the things they lack is support for the Felica contactless smart-card system. The technology, which is in many high-end 3G models, enables phones to double as electronic cash or loyalty cards and to be used for functions such as airport check-in. DoCoMo said Felica support would come to its new range of phones when the technology gets cheaper.

Nevertheless, the new handsets aren't without their frivolous features.

The F700i from Fujitsu Ltd. has a "relaxation mode" that plays soothing music and animation, while the N700i from NEC Corp. allows users to dress up video telephone calls with the type of on-screen graphics seen in cartoons, such as an exclamation mark. The P700i from Panasonic Mobile Communications Inc. sets the phone's LED to blink in reaction to the content of incoming picture messages. A fourth handset, the SH700i, is offered by Sharp Corp.

A large part of making the handsets appeal to a mass market has been to concentrate on design, by making them smaller, lighter and more stylish. In addition, each phone costs DoCoMo ¥10,000 (US$96) less to buy from the manufacturers, allowing it to charge customers less, Nagata said. DoCoMo wouldn't be drawn on retail prices but said the new phones will cost about the same as current 2G handsets.

The average weight of the 700-series handsets is 114 grams, compared to 127 grams for the higher-end 900-series, and the average volume is 97 cubic centimeters, versus 106cc. At the two extremes, the heaviest 900-series handset weighs 148 grams while the lightest new phone weighs 102 grams.

DoCoMo's effort to push 3G services into the midmarket comes just over 3 years after it launched its commercial 3G service in October 2001. At that time, the small selection of bulky and power-hungry handsets that were available, combined with spotty coverage, meant that users were slow to make the switch from the carrier's 2G network, which is based on a domestically developed system called PDC (Personal Digital Cellular System).

It took until September of 2003 for DoCoMo to get its first million 3G users, although the pace of new subscriptions picked up after that. In December 2003 the company launched its first full series of 3G handsets, the Foma 900i range, which consisted of five models and marked the beginning of a serious push for high-end customers. By the end of December 2004 the carrier's 3G subscriber base had swelled to 8.5 million, or 18 percent of its 47.9 million users.

The 9 million mark was passed in January and DoCoMo says it's on track to hit 10 million subscribers by the end of March.

DoCoMo sees the new 3G handsets replacing existing 2G handsets, and has announced no plans for a new range of cheaper 2G handsets.

"The role that was fulfilled by the 500-series (DoCoMo's current 2G handsets) will be fulfilled by the 700-series going forward," he said.

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