3G Wireless Set to Cover U.S. in ’06

The Veg-O-Matic of wireless phones has taken Japan by storm, and it’s headed our way with exciting implications for marketers.

What is 3G wireless? 3G, or third generation, is a technology that enables high-speed, always-on (simultaneous voice and data) wireless connectivity for mobile phone subscribers. The capabilities are so far beyond voice that the term mobile phone has been replaced with the more inclusive mobile handset. The service was introduced to the Japanese market in 2001 by DoCoMo, the largest Japanese telecom, but the handsets were unappealing and the service unreliable.

Massive adoption did not occur until upstart KDDI, Japan’s second-largest telecom, leapfrogged DoCoMo by introducing its “au” wireless service in March 2002, along with a new, streamlined handset with a large display and long-lasting battery. KDDI then changed the game by introducing fixed packet pricing – think back to 1996 when AOL introduced flat-rate pricing for dial-up Internet access and you get the picture.

KDDI today boasts 16 million subscribers to the service, or 70 percent of the 3G market in Japan, says Mobile Media Japan.

What’s so special about 3G? High-speed connectivity, for one. KDDI recently launched 2.4 megabits per second wide band service, which is comparable in speed to cable and permits the same step-up to rich media content on your handset that high-speed access enables on your PC. The display is as much as 80 percent larger in one dimension than typical U.S. cell phones.

Another key feature is the “always-on” aspect, which lets you receive a call (voice) while you’re online (data). The latest 3G handsets have built-in digital cameras with up to 2.0 megapixels of resolution, and if you’re wondering how you would ever store pictures that large, the handsets have data folders with as much as 24 megabytes of capacity.

GPS capability is available, turning your display into a map and guiding you to your destination. The ability to download ring tones has been taken to the logical next step – downloading songs, and the latest handsets such as the Casio W21CA let you listen to them on stereo speakers.

Many of these handsets are equipped with infrared devices, similar to a Mobil Speedpass, that let customers buy items from vending machines, for example, and have them billed to their wireless account. Smart card technology also has been introduced to turn handsets into e-wallets, thus replacing credit cards and cash.

One of the more interesting e-commerce applications uses the handset’s digital camera and 2D barcode technology. KDDI recently launched a shopping service using this technology that radically increases its role in transaction processing. After incurring significant expenses to build its au wireless customer base, KDDI sought to recoup its investment by adopting an advertising model, charging advertisers for the right to put their products in front of customers. Again, think back to AOL cutting deals with advertisers to allow them access to its customers.

To manage this, KDDI partnered with top affiliate marketing service provider LinkShare. KDDI is now a LinkShare affiliate, and all advertisers that want to participate must become LinkShare merchants.

For example, a KDDI customer sees a print ad for an iPod in a magazine and decides to buy it. The print ad includes a 2D barcode in the lower-right corner provided to the advertiser by KDDI. The barcode contains all the relevant information – the advertiser, the price, the commission KDDI charges, transaction fees, etc. The customer snaps a picture of the barcode, LinkShare’s technology calls up an image of the product, the user confirms the purchase and it’s billed to the user’s wireless account. LinkShare’s technology calculates the purchase price, the sales commission paid to KDDI and the transaction fee paid to LinkShare.

3G wireless is far behind in the United States because of the hefty price tag attached to building the infrastructure, $60 billion by some estimates. 3G service is not expected to be widely deployed until the end of 2006. Verizon launched the service in San Diego and Washington, DC, in 2003. Cingular’s recent merger with AT&T Wireless will jump-start its foray into 3G. AT&T launched 3G this year in Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas, Detroit, San Diego and San Francisco.

In the United States, cell phones are largely still just phones, but this is changing as users – mostly young people – incorporate cell phones into their daily lives for various types of communication, including text messaging and sharing digital photos. Advertisers are following along, experimenting with how best to use this emerging channel.

Projecting two years hence, when 3G is up and running, it seems clear that it will be a huge opportunity for marketers. The issue of advertising fragmentation becomes less of a challenge when one device consolidates most online activities and is always on. Whoever owns the customers will rule the day.

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