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3 X-Series: Flat Rate 3G

 3 X-Series Due December 2006 (UK), Q1 2007 (Elsewhere)
18th November 2006

Hutchison Whampoa, owner of the 3 mobile network has announced their curiously named "X-Series". No, the X-Series is not a phone, but it's a tariff.

What makes X-Series special is that (as far as we know) it's the first flate rate 3G call plan anywhere - subscribers pay a fixed monthly fee for access to pretty much anything they want. 3 say: "X-Series customers will only pay a flat access fee on top of their basic subscription and then what’s free to use on the internet should be free to use on mobile broadband (subject to fair usage and international roaming conditions, of course)"

Initially, 3 have partnered up with a variety of internet content and service providers. Yes, we've seen Google, Yahoo, Microsoft (for Windows Live Messenger) and eBay before, and frankly these are the staple diets of most internet users. However two of the services are pretty novel for a mobile phone network - Skype and Slingbox support. Skype is pretty well known for its ultra-cheap or free internet telephony. But the Slingbox is something quite different - this allows you to stream media from your home to another device, so for example you could stream your digital TV signal from home to your mobile phone, so you can watch just about anything, anywhere. There are a number of other multimedia features too.

Initially, 3's X-Series will be offered with two Symbian handsets, the Sony Ericsson W950i "Walkman" phone and the Nokia N73. These are two excellent handsets, and the X-Series versions will have additional software loaded onto them to make it easy to use X-Series services.

The flat rate data access isn't limited to 3's partners. 3 say that "the X-Series from 3 will give everyone access to more of what they want, when they want it, and however much of it they want, all free when they use it." Presumably, this also means that you can use a 3 X-Series handset or SIM card for flat-rate 3G access when using a laptop or other portable computer.

The basic tariff is an all-you-can-eat callplan when it comes to Skype, web browsing and instant messaging. Higher bandwidth uses such as the Slingbox will be more expensive. This is pretty much analogous to the way fixed-line broadband works.

Dont' chuck out your ADSL line or cable modem just yet - a standard UMTS 3G connection only gives you a maximum speed of 384kbps. Technologies such as HSDPA will give this a considerable boost, but at the time of writing these are still not widely available.

This is a bold move from 3, and it acknowledges the fact that the old style of charging per megabyte wasn't that attractive to customers - and indeed, most customers were just using their 3G phones for talking and texting, particularly on the 3 network which has offered very good value in order to build market share. Indeed, it's hard to see how other operators can continue to offer their current 3G data plans against a flat rate competition. 

The problem is that mobile networks have paid billions for their licenses, and as yet have made precious little return on their investment. For example in the UK, the 5 3G operators shelled out a massive £22 billion (€35 billion) for licenses in a country with around 45 million handsets. In order to recoup costs, operators will have to earn a whopping £500 (€800) per subscriber, and this doesn't seem to be happening.

3 haven't said how much the X-Series call plan will cost, but they have said that it will be available from 1st December 2006 in the UK, then during 2007 in other Hutchison 3 territories.


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