San Diego-based Qualcomm has championed 3G for longer than many in the wireless communications industry.
The company behind CDMA cellular technology, widely used in Asia and North America, has more recently made significant inroads in GSM-based markets, especially Europe. Qualcomm’s chipsets can be found in a wide range of UMTS 3G devices, including mobile data cards but also in a growing number of phones.
Dr Paul Jacobs, who took over as CEO of the company this year, says the industry is only now bringing together all the elements that will bring 3G – and the accompanying data-based services – into the mainstream.
“The phones are becoming good now,” he says. “They are the right size, the right cost and the right features. Operators are now seeing 3G as a core part of their business, rather than the icing on the cake.”
For Dr Jacobs, this means moving away from promoting data as a service in itself to explaining what it can offer to mobile subscribers. But it is also about using 3G to make better use of radio spectrum, cutting the cost of voice calls and so driving up mobile phone use, especially among consumers.
“This is the year when operators are finally saying they will make the push for 3G, he says. “Previously, they did not really have their marketing plans together, or if they did they were around features such as video calling, which are interesting but not compelling.”
Dr Jacobs points to the success of the strategy adopted by Hutchison with its network 3: as a newcomer, the operator quickly realised that it was competitive bundles of voice minutes, rather than hi-tech services, that would convince consumers to switch to its network.
Hutchison’s strategy has worked because it is voice calls above all else that drive consumers and business users to buy a mobile phone. For Dr Jacobs, voice remains the “killer application”.
Take-up of other services will grow as better – and better-priced – handsets come to the market. “Look at something like the video camera [in a mobile phone] – that has become more interesting,” he says. “The stills camera was the first piece, then came the video camera. The quality has improved, phones have more memory, and we are starting to see the capabilities of the networks improve.”
Dr Jacobs believes that video-enabled phones could prove as successful as camera phones already are. But handsets that compete with camcorders, even at the low end, pose some challenges for network operators. “Operators are good at getting information from the network to the device,” he says. “But getting information from the device to the network will be as important.”
In Asia, Dr Jacobs has also witnessed the early adoption of both TV-out and gaming on mobile handsets. He expects both features to become mainstream, and to drive the use of data services. “Every new technology shows up in Asia first,” he says. “Consumers in Asia are willing to pay more for their phones.
“A lot of the services there require an extra piece of hardware that adds to the cost, power consumption, or size of the phone.” European and North American consumers are somewhat more conservative.
Asian manufacturers were the first to add TV connections to their phones, and it is a feature that consumers in the region do use. “It starts because you have pictures or videos and you can take your phone out to show them to somebody. Qualcomm, through its MediaFlo subsidiary, has also made a substantial bet on mobile TV.
“But then you put applications on the phone, and you can use it as a games controller. It is much cheaper than a games console. The phone will be the games console for the rest of the world,” he says.
The latest mobile handsets can already play high-speed, action-rich games and let players compete with each other across networks. Jacobs expects to see wireless connections to TVs and other home entertainment gear via 802.11n or ultra-wide-band radio.
“The phone is no longer limited to a two-and-a-half inch screen,” he says.