T-Mobile launches 3G in NYC

T-Mobile launched its first 3G (third-generation) network, in New York, but customers can’t yet use the fastest speeds that the network offers.

Customers can use phones that will let them download data at UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) speeds of as fast as 384K bps (bits per second). While the network supports HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), which offers download speeds of around 1M bps, T-Mobile doesn’t have any handsets yet that are compatible with the network. The operator said it plans to offer its first HSDPA device “in the coming months.”

While Cingular Wireless, now AT&T, began selling HSDPA phones in mid-2006, T-Mobile can’t offer customers those phones because the operators’ networks use different spectrum. That means handset manufacturers must tweak their HSDPA phones that were designed for other operators to work on T-Mobile’s network.

T-Mobile has already been selling four phones that will work on the UMTS network. They include Nokia’s 6263 and 3555 and Samsung’s t639 and t819.

T-Mobile plans to roll out its 3G network in the top 20 to 25 markets by the end of the year.

Rather than jump into 3G at the same time as its competitors, T-Mobile has focused on offering Wi-Fi hotspot services. In its announcement about the New York 3G launch, T-Mobile reassured customers that it will continue to build out its hotspot network. It currently has nearly 9,000 hotspots in the U.S.

Launching 3G years later than competitors doesn’t necessarily mean that T-Mobile missed the wireless data opportunity, said one industry analyst. “We are currently in the first years of a long opportunity,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst, by e-mail. If T-Mobile offers quality, easy-to-use services at the right price, it could be successful, he said.

T-Mobile also offers a service that lets customers use a combined Wi-Fi and cellular phone. Customers can use the phone to make and receive voice calls in their homes over a Wi-Fi connection. Using Wi-Fi for calls may offer a higher quality service than trying to make calls indoors over the wide area cellular network.

Apple is widely expected to come out with a new version of the iPhone that supports 3G sometime this year. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson promised a 2008 launch for a 3G iPhone during a speech last fall. And analysts have said the release of a 3G-capable iPhone would help Apple meet its goal of selling 10 million phones by year’s end. What’s more, AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive service provider in the U.S., has been carrying plans to expand 3G service throughout the U.S. during 2008.

Macworld staff contributed information about the iPhone to this report.

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