Some people would have you believe that 3GSM World Congress 2004 in Cannes that just ended was the crowning moment when 3G really started to take off. But dont believe the hype.
The show may have been where more confident announcements about 3G started to be trumpeted, but the 3GSM affair continues to be a weirdly unconnected show. Although youd kind of expect them to have more or less gotten the hang of 2.5G by now (well, it has been a couple of years), youd have been well advised not to arrive holding your breath.
Public Wi-Fi systems are starting to arrive, and its perhaps significant that the operators themselves are starting to offer them in Cannes. Both Orange and SFR are running Wi-Fi services, so its not a religious issue any more, and one might reasonably take that as a sign that a sensible coexistence between Wi-Fi and cellular will shortly be achieved. But sensible billing systems are another story. At $80 for three days, the price of the SFR system (SFR is one of Frances two major players and is a Vodafone partner) almost makes GPRS roaming look cheap.
Meanwhile, would-be vendors of billing solutions are holding court on the sidelines and confidently predicting success when everybody wakes up. Data services will not be free, they argue, nor will they be hugely expensive. They will be priced at what customers perceive as a fair rate for the job. This seems a reasonable point of view, especially when you consider the utter improbability of the people who own the infrastructure giving the bandwidth away for free.
In the meantime, the honest 3GSM reporter has the choice of paying SFR the Wi-Fii ransom, sleeping by one of the laughably overloaded RJ45 plugs in the press zone, trying to get lucky by miraculously making a wireless connection at one of the few times the wireless router in the press zone happens to wake up, or paying the ransom for GPRS. Surprisingly, for the first two days of the show, GPRS roaming with SFR from a UK Vodafone account actually worked, albeit at throughput levels that put you in mind of the days when it was measured in baud. But by day three GPRS roaming had largely ceased to function (and in a manner that suggested to the suspicious-minded that somebody might just have decided a smart way to keep the data network alive would be to bar roaming). So remind me, whats 3GSM supposed to be a showcase of? Anybody got a spare postage stamp?
This report has been brought to you via the Wi-Fi zone at Nice airport, $5 for a 30 minute scratchcard, but I dont care. There are seats, it is quiet, and you can get coffee. The notion of living at the airport and commuting the prodigious distance to the show every day next year begins to have its attractions...